Close calls at the mall

The sister of a friend of mine was at the Clackamas Town Center mall when the shooting started yesterday. She was unhurt, fortunately, but several others were not so lucky. Another troubled young man with a gun, more fatalities. It’s almost numbing, the regularity with which this same story (with slight variations) plays out across this country week to week.

But this one got under my skin because it happened in my home state, which made me think of another close call at the mall that I had there years ago.

I was visiting my parents from out of state for a long weekend, and mom and I went shopping. She went her way and I went mine with an agreement to meet up later. I headed to a jewelry store to get a new battery for my watch.

Just as I was handing my check to the clerk behind the counter, an enormous young black man materialized as if from nowhere at my left elbow. He reached across the counter and grabbed the clerk by her upper arm and pulled her hard against the partition. He shoved a black handgun firmly under her chin right in front of my face. Her eyes rolled in terror as she whimpered “please don’t hurt me.” I can still see that gun, which was apparently so new it had a white price tag hanging by a string on the trigger guard. I’ll never forget the image of that little tag.

I won’t lie to you, my memories of most of what happened next are nothing but a blur because I was as scared as the poor clerk was–the gun was real, the menace was real. That could have been the day I died, and my mother didn’t even know where I was.

The man with the gun ordered everyone in the shop to get down on the ground, I sat down right where I was with my back against the counter. He went behind the counter and, I was told later, roughed up the employees in the back, although no one was seriously injured. Three or four more young black men immediately came running into the store shouting at us to stay down, and glass started shattering as they broke the plate-glass display cases and took watches and diamonds. Mostly what I could see from where I sat were running feet. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and all the robbers ran out the back door. The police said they all got away, in the middle of a downtown mall, in broad daylight, but were arrested weeks later in another state.

We got up and looked around us at all the broken glass and the brand-new little sledgehammers the robbers had used and left behind in the now empty display cases. It was surreal how dramatically the scene had changed in less time than it takes to properly smoke a cigarette.

I hugged the clerk, who was not injured, and gave a report to the police when they finally came. I got my name in the local paper the next day. And I’m pretty sure I cried like a baby when I finally met up with my mother again.

I often think of that day and that feeling of stark terror I felt as I huddled on the floor, not far from an elderly store employee who was on her knees, butt in the air, arms crossed over her head. We were all just ordinary people doing ordinary business on an ordinary day in an ordinary store, who happened to step into the path of a band of criminals. We were lucky that these criminals were only robbers and not homicidal, suicidal nutjobs with automatic weapons who wanted to kill as many people as possible. But in today’s crazy world, you just never know where you’re going to cross paths with somebody like that–at the mall, at school, at the movie theater, at work. Is any place safe?

And while we’re at it, what is wrong with this country that (mostly) young men continue to commit essentially the same crime over and over and over again to the point that the latest shooting hardly makes a blip in the national news cycle? It happens all across the country, every week, it seems. There’s no point in even talking about writing new gun laws because these guys are breaking laws already on the books and well enforced: Every hour of every day in every state of the Union, it has always been and will always be illegal to shoot people in cold blood for no reason. And still that will not stop them.

Photo by Nick Oxford/The New York Times

An open carry advocate in Oklahoma. Photo by Nick Oxford/The New York Times

Some of my Facebook friends are huffing and puffing about how we need more law-abiding citizens to carry their own weapons (openly or concealed) in public at all times so they can be ready to defend themselves and their fellow citizens in cases like this. I wonder, though, does a concealed carry permit (or just the fact of owning a gun, since you don’t need a permit to open carry in most states) impart nerves of steel, perfect marksmanship, lightning-quick reflexes, and the will to kill another human being? Because one would need all those things when facing a deranged assassin who has nothing to lose. And what are the chances that a person with a pistol will prevail against a person with a semi-automatic assault rifle? Or are all the open-carry advocates going to strap rifles to their backs every time they go out on the town, just to be extra-extra-safe?

If I’d been carrying a weapon in that jewelry store, my only option would have been to shoot to kill the gunman on the spot (nerves of steel, will to kill), hoping that he didn’t use the clerk as a human shield or I didn’t hit her by mistake (perfect marksmanship), and that he didn’t fire at me first (lightning-quick reflexes). Because when two people point loaded weapons at each other, talking it out is no longer an option. Kill or be killed are your only choices. Like everybody else in that store, I sat down and covered my head and kept my mouth shut, and I lived to tell the tale. The robbers got away with the loot, but every one of us survived the day. Who’s the hero?

Speaking as somebody who has lived through a real encounter with a real criminal brandishing a real gun (and not some fantasy about being the open-carry hero), I know that it’s highly unlikely that the average, law-abiding citizen would be able to assess a critically dangerous, volatile situation correctly and take that kill shot without doing significant collateral damage to innocent bystanders and likely being killed as well.

I don’t like the idea of armed amateurs taking on the role of law enforcement because they’re probably going to do far more harm than good. And while I support a person’s right to defend herself, I, for one, am not willing to give myself a license to kill by carrying a gun on my person, openly or otherwise.


This was a tough post for me to write, and I missed my midnight deadline. 😦

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3 thoughts on “Close calls at the mall

  1. I was standing on the sidewalk with a man standing 4 feet away pointing a gun in my face. what happened in the next 20 minutes would not have happened to me, and worse, to subsequent girls, had I been the one with the gun.

    nerves of steel? no. perfect marksmanship? maybe not. lightning-quick reflexes? not many have those. but the will to kill? absolutely. when someone is willing to use a firearm in order to commit a brutal crime, instill fear, rape or murder another human being, they should be prepared for the consequences and if those consequences involve a law abiding citizen shooting them dead where they stand, so be it.

    you’re lucky that you were simply involved in a robbery, huddled on the floor and that jewelry was all that they wanted.

    not sure this man had lightning quick reflexes at 71, but i can guarantee that these young ‘men’ will never, ever try this again.

  2. I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind on this issue. My only purpose in blogging about it is to tell you what I think. My stance on this is strictly libertarian: I don’t believe in vigilante justice so I am not willing to arm myself and be prepared to kill another person. I’m not telling anyone else what they should or should not do, I’m just saying what I will and will not do based on my own ideas of right and wrong. If you believe you need to carry a gun on your person at all times, do so. That’s your right. If you believe that doing so will protect you from every harm, well, it’s your right to believe that, too.

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