In the summer of 2014, I was accosted by a young man on drugs on the balcony of Restaurant Gwendolyn, on the River Walk.
In the midst of wrestling on the ground outside those big windows in front of my dining room full of guests, he bit a chunk out of my chest. It took myself and three other people to hold him down for the 40 minutes it took the police to arrive.
After they hauled him off, I washed my hands and body as well as I could and returned to cooking on the line, attempting to restore some sanity to my kitchen and dining room. I remember in those shattered moments just after the event: while scanning my tickets, adding up the salads, then trying to assemble a poached pear and arugula salad with trembling hands, it suddenly it occurred to me that the room was silent because everyone in it was staring at me.
I looked down. My chef coat was soaked with my own blood. There was nothing left to do but to leave the line. Noel Halligan, my sous chef at the time, cleared the pass of my attempted salads and carried out the remainder of an awkward service without me.
We’ve seen some rough times. Our bridge is a particularly popular drug trade location, and people have walked into both restaurants with questionable and sometimes even violent intentions. Out of a desire to protect my staff and my guests, I resolved last year to take a course to obtain the license to carry a handgun.
I bought the smallest practical handgun I could find – and by practical I mean a gun whose bullets are carried most anywhere, and are not a specialty item. My gun is a Smith and Wesson M&P Bodyguard .380. It is no bigger than my hand, and comes standard with a laser sight which I have never used. The gun, together with the concealed-carry holster and a small safe to keep it away from my children cost me about $1,000, and after a security check that couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes, I took the gun home the very same day.
As I sat on my bed with the freshly unwrapped pistol lying there on the comforter in front of me, I was filled with…horror.
Here was a tool – for which I had paid dearly, with my own money – built expressly for the purpose of killing human beings. As advised by the store clerk, I purchased the proper ammunition: a box of Federal Premium 380, Auto 90 Grain HYDRA-SHOK, a hollow-point bullet designed to do something so awful that I cannot bring myself to describe it.
The gun comes with a complimentary second clip, just in case seven bullets won’t do.
In the concealed handgun course, I once raised my hand and blurted out, “But I don’t want to kill anybody. Couldn’t we just shoot the ground, or shoot them in the leg, or something?”
I was shut down by the teacher.
“No,” they said. “If you feel your life is threatened, you kill them dead. If you merely shoot them in the leg, his defense attorney will have grounds for reasoning to a jury that at that split second you didn’t feel like your life was in danger, opening the door to all sorts of plot lines dragging you into the box of criminality rather than his client.”
Passing a handgun course is easy. There is a paper and pencil part of the class, in which you learn the legal definition of “premises,” how to read the various posted legal signs, when you are in the right to use force “up to and including deadly force,” which side of the law things fall on when incidents happen, and how to be on the right side of the law.
Also, heavily pushed for a monthly fee, a lawyer retainer program of sorts that will come to your defense if you do shoot someone and find yourself being arrested on this account. The written test was easy. I mean, really easy.
In the practical part of the test you shoot at a paper target of a man from close enough to hit him with a brick (because, statistically, this is the distance at which most altercations tend to occur). Shoot center mass, and only center mass. A certain number of shots within a certain length of time. Everybody in my class passed without the slightest difficulty.
A few fingerprint sessions and online registrations later, I had my card. My license to kill.
So I took my gun on a few maiden voyages. I kept it in the back of my belt line, covered by a loose long-sleeved shirt. The expectation I gathered from other “carriers” is that it is almost an unconscious thing – like they hardly know it’s there – but I found it more like carrying around a pound of butter in the back of your pants.
All day I nervously readjusted my pant line trying to look and feel more natural, every three minutes giving a reassuring tug and smooth-over on my shirt tail to make sure it’s not flipped over the pistol handle. Walking through a crowd of people you feel like a bulging elephant trying to “blend in.”
The physical weight is nothing in comparison to the emotional and psychological. I think about it when I sit down on it in my truck, what it would be like if it should go off, or if it tumbled out of its holster on my way down the spiral staircase at the restaurant. Once clambering through the underbrush out in the country, I got to the other side of a bramble to find myself divested of the holster and all its contents: I retraced my steps through the sticks and thorns to find it dangling from a branch there in the middle of the thicket. Some hero I turned out to be.
When you wear a gun you look at people differently. My usually easy conversation with old ladies on the street is strained. She is a grandma, and I am a killer. You walk down the sidewalk in a state of hyper-awareness, weighing strangers lighting their cigarettes, or digging through their backpack, trying to discern if they are conscientiously adjusting their handgun as you are adjusting yours.
I was afraid of the dark when I was little.
Inside a closed shoebox, or in the back of the closet, any little crack of darkness was writhing, thick and twisting with the most terrible monsters. I would hold my breath and run through them streaking across my face and ice cold through my clothes, and flick on the light to the bathroom panting, with trembles and chills shooting through my body. More than once, I about knocked my lights out by running headlong into the door I didn’t know was open. Fear follows you tight, up to the backs of your eyelids.
Carrying the will of death in the back of my pants fills my stomach with lead. I do not drink, and have never used drugs, and even in my relatively permanent state of clarity, gravity pulls on me harder than most. I cannot believe for a moment that the conscious thought of being armed has not brought about killing less than half deserved.
And I understand the argument that if good people don’t have guns, only bad people will have guns. Yes, I understand it well enough to have used that logic on myself, and – naturally assuming that I was one of the good ones – I did so.
You carry a gun around with the intention of being the one sane, capable person in the room the unexpected split second it is called for, and because of this extremely high vigilance – which is exhausting – the impulse of whipping out the gun to chase off the dragons of your fear is, even for the best intended of us, no more than inches away.
Before having a gun, I felt that having a gun would mitigate the fear of the unknown. I now realize that, at least for me, it amplifies it.
Because the weight is so great in my heart and on my relationships which are based on trust and affection, I rarely carry my gun. And I struggle with that.
I feel guilt in the likelihood that I will not have it if the day ever comes that it is necessary and I will have left it at home, but relieved for all the slightly questionable people I have not killed at least in part because I was not armed the moment they walked in, possibly dangerous and something had to be done.
It crosses my mind that thousands and thousands of people possess the same license that I do. And I can’t help but think that this license should also come with absolutely mandatory courses in human psychology, in high-stress negotiation, a screening of your own personal composure, and a police academy’s training in assessing a possible assailant.
I have been taught how to kill, but not whether.