We’d just finished eating at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant on the West Side when my husband muttered something under his breath.

“Don’t look now, but the guy sitting at the table against the wall is packing heat,” Mark whispered.

The couple across from us exchanged glances. They’d have to turn around to look.

I just glanced over, trying not to stare. And there he was: A big, balding, beefy white guy dressed in a T-shirt and sporting an aggressive beard, the kind of dude you might see at a Trump rally. And there, nestled at his hip, was the gun — gleaming and black, its presence radiating considerably more aggression than its owner’s facial hair. 

Accompanied by a female diner, the man seemed relaxed, but presumably was ready to rise up should an armed intruder invade this mom-and-pop eatery tucked away on a humble stretch of road peppered with tire shops and car lots.

Ice water zinged through my veins. I couldn’t even enjoy my tiramisu. What if this man went off and started shooting? What if he suddenly decided some threat loomed and began indiscriminately discharging his piece, with me and the people I love in the line of fire?

It was a keener version of the tiny frisson of anxiety I feel these days whenever the lights go down in the movie theater and an unwanted thought bubbles up: Does anybody in here have an axe to grind and a semi-automatic hidden under his trench coat? 

I have plenty of company when it comes to feeling nervous in public spaces.

A study in 2019 found that one-third of U.S. adults have ceased going to certain public places or events for fear of being caught up in a mass shooting; more than three-quarters said they experienced stress at the mere thought of such an event happening.

You don’t have to personally experience the trauma of an active shooter or other form of domestic terrorism to have it negatively impact your mental health, experts say: Just hearing about it on the news and in social media is enough to make you feel anxious. The anxiety tends to hit hardest whenever people find themselves in common life situations — at malls, stores, theaters, schools, colleges and universities.

David Helterbrand, the male half of the couple with whom we were having dinner at the Italian eatery, said the threat of violence has caused him to change his behavior while in public.

“I don’t want anybody behind me that I don’t know,” the 54-year-old architectural designer said. “I try to put my back to the wall and also make sure that I face the door so I can see who is coming in. That’s what it has come to: You can’t be surprised because you never know what’s going to happen next.”

There’s no mystery as to why so many of us are feeling on edge.

Through mid-October of this year, there have already been at least 531 mass shootings, including the rampage in Uvalde that killed 19 students and two teachers. Last year, there were 692 mass shootings across the nation.

The dread that our schoolchildren could be in harm’s way has caused a hair-trigger response to develop, one that was pulled in September at Jefferson High School, when parents flocked to the campus on the (inaccurate) report of a school shooter, prompting a lockdown and resulting pandemonium.

But school shootings aren’t the only factor fomenting fear. As voters head to the polls today for the November midterms, America is increasingly resembling a steaming cauldron of hate, one that is boiling over in all sorts of virulent ways.

Recent years have seen a striking rise in domestic terrorism, from vandalism and threats to actual violence and deaths — the vast majority of it stemming from right-wing extremism. 

Aside from the occasional left-winger allegedly aiming to kill a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the data shows right-wing extremist violence is the nation’s biggest threat.

White supremacist and antisemitic hate propaganda has increased and infiltrated mainstream politics and culture. There’s been a steady rise in hate crimes tied to the racist rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.

There’s been a 144 % surge in cases of violence and threats of violence against lawmakers of both political stripes, epitomized in the recent assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — demonized for years by the GOP — by an unhinged man asking “Where’s Nancy?” who had an online history stuffed with right-wing, conspiracy theory beliefs.

Election workers are being harassed by MAGA extremists. So are school board members across the country, as the culture wars enter the classroom. Judges handling prosecutions of Jan. 6 insurrectionists have been threatened.

Recently, masked poll watchers in Arizona showed up at ballot drop boxes, armed with guns to intimidate voters.

As the nation careers toward the 2024 elections, about 40% of Americans — and three-quarters of Republicans — still falsely believe the Big Lie that Biden stole the 2022 presidential election. A 2021 poll found that one-third of Americans believe violence against the government is “sometimes justified.”

After the FBI’s search of Trump’s home in August at Mar-a-Lago for classified documents, calls for a civil war and related right-wing rhetoric escalated precipitously across social media and other platforms, as did threats to FBI agents.

We’re living in a powder keg, one so combustible that I fear the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol may prove to be merely a preview of deadly events to come, not just in Washington but in cities throughout the nation.

The fuse is being lit by dangerous politicians like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who at an October rally headlined by Trump claimed that “Democrats want Republicans dead, and they’ve already started the killings.”

It’s being lit by rank opportunists like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said there will be “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted over the classified documents he kept at Mar-a-Lago — a statement many saw as a tacit incitement to violence.

And, of course, the fuse is lit by that original bomb-thrower himself — the one who gives license to all the hate — Donald Trump, who told followers on Jan. 6 that if they didn’t “fight like hell” they weren’t going to have a country anymore, and who recently claimed that Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell had a (wink-wink) “death wish” by voting in favor of Democratic legislation.

While left-wingers are not inured to violence, and a good number wreaked havoc during Black Lives Matter protests, it’s important to note that the majority of social justice protests of 2020 were nonviolent.

Meanwhile, some Republican leaders and would-be leaders are stoking the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which posits Democratic elites and Jews are working to replace the white race by flooding the country with immigrants and people of color. Such leaders know it’s fertile ground to plow, especially among blue-collar white males, who feel a kind of rage over the idea they’re losing what they see as their God-given place of privilege in a nation that’s becoming more diverse.

With all this venom swirling around in the zeitgeist, is it surprising when people get twitchy at the grocery store?

Recently, my younger sister Martha was in the cereal aisle at H-E-B when a large box or crate dropped elsewhere in the store. After the thunderclap sound, she and several shoppers looked at each other in panic.

“This one woman’s face went absolutely white,” Martha recalled. “The hair on my arms went up. It’s standing up again, just as I’m remembering this.”

These days, Martha said, she makes a point of knowing where the exits are when she visits any public place.

Even our youngest are feeling the fear. A study last December found that active-shooter lockdown drills in schools are resulting in elevated rates of anxiety, stress and depression among students.

For his part, Helterbrand, the architectural designer, said he’s not anti-gun. He owns three, in fact, including the one his grandfather took off the body of the German solider he killed in World War II. But he doesn’t flaunt his arms in the street.

As I watched the packing-heat diner saunter toward his car in the parking lot, I wondered if he was aware of a new study that shows people living in homes with guns face a substantially higher rate of being shot to death than those who don’t.

In the year after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Texas’ open carry law, which lets anyone over 21 openly carry a handgun without a license, law enforcement agencies in urban areas have reported an increase in spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment shootings. Studies also show a link between laws that make it easier to carry a handgun and an increase in both crime and shootings by the police.

Governor Greg Abbott addresses supporters at PicaPica Plaza in San Antonio's Southside on Monday evening.
Governor Greg Abbott addresses supporters during a campaign event in May. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

So far this year, San Antonio has seen the highest number of homicides in nearly three decades, a rise public policy experts attribute to the omnipresence of firearms.

“We aren’t seeing big increases in organized crime or other crimes usually associated with homicides,” one told the San Antonio Express-News. “Now, we are seeing arguments just blow out of control in seconds because someone is pulling out a gun.”

Guns make us safer? Not by a long shot.

Helterbrand said he doesn’t want to turn into his father, who always carries a gun a fearful overreaction to the admittedly stressful times that in fact just compounds the problem. He’ll continue to sit with his back to the wall — and stay calmly vigilant. 

“I don’t feel the need to be armed all the time, to be afraid of everything,” Helterbrand said. “It doesn’t make sense to live your life that way.”

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje has worked in Texas newspaper journalism for more than three decades, at the San Antonio Light, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She holds bachelor’s...