Friday, September 10, 2010

Real-life perspective on guns in restaurants

Jim Balloch, a veteran reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, was eating in a local S&S Cafeteria last week when he heard a commotion from the cashier’s booth a few feet away. What happened next is a nightmare familiar to many of you who operate restaurants, a damnable side effect of keeping the doors open to everyone. No one could have prevented what happened, but some contend there’d be greater safety in what the industry blasts as a pronounced danger. Clarification on that in a moment.

First, I’ll let Jim describe what happened, as he did in this first-person account for the paper:
I stood up and started to walk to the booth to see if I could help when I heard the shot. It was a dull, flat pop, not as loud as would be expected of a shot fired inside a room.

From my angle, I could see a semiautomatic pistol, angled slightly downward. I could barely see the hand that was holding it. At that precise second, all sights, sounds and senses of time and motion were compressed into a queasy netherworld.

Balloch dove under a table, as did many of the other customers. They came out when someone yelled that the cashier, a 60-year-old retired accountant six weeks into the job, had been shot during the robbery. Dan Giles couldn’t be saved.

The Sentinel reported this week that authorities suspect the robber was a former S&S employee who killed Giles to avoid being identified. When the police went to arrest the suspect, 54-year-old Michael Chesney, he fired at them, hitting one officer. The others shot back and killed Chesney.

Balloch wrote the story.

If that had happened outside of Tennessee, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. But the state is a flashpoint in the debate over expanded gun-possession laws. The statutes were recently amended to permit consumers with a concealed-gun permit to visit alcohol-serving establishments while armed, a move that strikes many of us as increasing the chances of a shooting, not averting situations like the S&S murder.

Proponents counter that residents should be able to defend themselves in all situations, and stress that the new law doesn’t permit the gun bearer to drink.

The state’s restaurant industry, like the trade of virtually every other state that allows hidden guns in bars, has argued vehemently that the temptation might be too great. They also fret that arguments involving only one combatant stoked by drink could still lead to nose-to-barrel confrontations. The combination of alcohol and guns is just too potentially dangerous, they assert.

A restaurant server who agrees recently filed a complaint with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He asserted that the law is putting him at considerable risk on the job. The safety watchdogs have yet to rule on the matter.

S&S Cafeterias typically don’t serve alcohol. In an e-mail to me, Balloch noted that an armed patron wouldn’t have been able to protect Giles because the cashier’s booth is tucked out of diners’ sight lines. “So in this situation, especially since it happened so quickly, there would not have even been time for a permit holder to act to even save Mr. Giles' life,” he wrote.

But if the shooter had gone on a rampage, a la what happened in Killeen, Texas, years ago, “then I would wager that everyone in the cafeteria would hope that at least someone among them had a means to resist,” Balloch said.

Gun enthusiasts would seize on that sentiment as validation for permitting weapons everywhere, from parent teacher meetings to picnics in the park. But I still don’t see how packing guns in restaurants, especially ones that serve alcohol, averts rather than fosters danger. For every Luby’s shooting, which we’re still discussing some 20 years later because of its rarity, there might be X accidental shootings, or rash gun play sparked by anger, machismo, or a few Jack Daniels downed in defiance of the law.

Those concerns should be part of the discussion, just as the potential safety might. Which is why I’ve tried to air both sides here.

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