He’ll take the Second.

I have a lot to tell you: Visitors. Surprises. A lot more visitors. A wedding. And recipes – recipes up on recipes, stacking up in my little book. But honestly? None of it has seemed very important this week.

I have a new least favorite course, dining out. It’s called gunpoint. It comes after appetizers, but before the entrée, when you’ve appreciated a few sips of your pink cocktail, but haven’t had enough to stay calm when, say, a big bear of a man stands up with a gun at other end of the restaurant, and starts booming something scary about killing the person at the other end of the weapon as they both head for the door, passing not two feet from you.

I know, I know, this is all sounding really crazy. But believe me, people, it happened. Last week. At the Pacific Grill, in Tacoma. It’s taken me a full week to stop shaking when I think about it. (It pisses me off that the chef blogged about shortcake this week, but I guess that’s the beauty of a blog.)

Rewind: It all started with the tater tots—homemade Oregon bleu cheese tater tots, to be exact. I knew they were too good to be true. I was sitting at the bar with my friend Beth, mopping a crunchy specimen through its creamy bleu cheese béchamel, when her eyes got really wide. She stopped chewing, actually.

I swiveled around in time to see a man pointing a revolver at another man’s back. Only the gunman was about three feet from what at that point appeared to be the victim, and from my perspective, it felt an awful lot like it was pointed at me. It was the first time I’d seen the kind of gun that looks designed to kill people. It was also the first time I’d looked down the business end.

“Turn around one more time, and I’ll shoot you,” said the gunman, quite clearly. He took a path uncomfortably close to my stool, escorting the other man out at point-blank range. I turned to Beth, willing her eyes to tell me—for fifteen long seconds—when we’d need to melt down between the bar and our barstools. She was frozen, except her big blue eyes, which softened as the two left the restaurant, then widened again as the gunman returned, relaxed, and sat down to eat his dinner.

I didn’t grow up in a dangerous place. These days, I don’t think of downtown Tacoma as a particularly dangerous place, either – probably a direct result of being a recent transplant. Judging by the staff’s reaction, though, neither do folks down there. We watched a server quake as she attempted to bring the restaurant back to life, zesting jagged, bumpy-edged strips out of a lemon that seemed to be doubling as an anti-stress ball.

It’s hard to say which scared me more: The idea of leaving the restaurant, and risking running into someone who was apparently no longer about to die but maybe should have, or sitting at the bar, in plain view of a man who’d just threatened death. Beth and I just sat, in shock, willing ourselves to breathe. In and out. In and out.

The police arrived. There was much scuffling outside, and a story unfolded: A man had walked into the Pacific Grill, seating himself like a regular customer. He’d asked the hostess for money (which sent her flying into the kitchen for help), then approached a group of doctors gathered for dinner toward the back of the restaurant. He tried to mug someone, and when the kitchen staff failed to convince him it was time to leave, he tried again. A doctor – who had apparently come to dinner packing heat, like you do, on his way back from target practice – thought his own method might be more convincing.

In the end, it was. The robber left the restaurant. The police came quickly, and took him away. No one was hurt.

But oh, friends, I got issues. There is so much wrong with this picture.

According to Washington state gun laws, it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon in a bar, but as far as I can tell, restaurant revolvers are a-okay. I personally can’t imagine having much of an appetite with cold steel in my purse. But wait – do I get a say? Guess not. Thank you, dear doctor. I’ll have another helping of Second Amendment, please. A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Yeah. I feel secure.

Suppose the mugger had turned around. Suppose the gunman had fired. Suppose he’d missed, and hit me, a presumably innocent bystander sitting, incidentally, at the bar, where the same concealment would have been totally illegal. (Note to lawmakers: Bullets travel.) Or suppose the mugger had also had a gun, or a knife, or what have you, and things had gotten really nasty.

The news coverage paints the gunman as the savior. (This story, too.) I can’t stomach the politics, but that part bothers me. Might as well have run a television ad, BUY A GUN AND POINT IT AT SOMEONE TODAY.

Suppose, now, that the kitchen staff had gotten a little more aggressive, or that the standoff had lasted a few more minutes, gunless, until the police walked in. (They never actually had to enter the restaurant, at least not when I was there.) I, for one, don’t believe the gun was the only answer. I’m grateful I didn’t die, sure, but I’ve spent the week being embarrassed, almost, that I live in a place where crime is so quickly answered with more violence, realized or just potential.

For the record, we stayed for the rest of dinner. (The barkeeper was wonderful, filling us in when he could, keeping us calm.)

We shared a tuna tartare, moist and fresh on a bed of mashed avocado, with a caper vinaigrette that sunk into the crisp toasts and softened them just enough to chew peacefully. Midway through my halibut, a Thai-inspired affair swimming with mussels in a pool of kaffir lime-scented coconut curry, it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t be hungry. But the chef had stayed in the kitchen throughout the whole ordeal, and when my fish appeared without pause, perfectly cooked, not eating didn’t seem like a valid option.

Sure, I’ll go back. Next time, though, I might sit in a corner.

What about you? Are guns legal in restaurants in your state? (How naive of me to assume they weren’t here.)

19 Comments

Filed under commentary

19 responses to “He’ll take the Second.

  1. Wow, how terrifying. I’m so glad you’re okay. I would also have a problem with the gunman being painted as the hero – to me, that sounds like a major overreaction, even though the guy clearly did need to be tossed out of the restaurant.

  2. Roxanne

    No clue about the laws on guns. But guns in crowds do seem a recipe for disaster. I recall being a waitress in Berkeley in the 70’s. We had regular visits from purse snatchers. They would take a seat behind a woman who hung a shoulder bag on the back of a chair and bolt after they got her wallet out of it. I got to the point where I could sniff them out by how they picked their table, what they ordered. I would then just take the purse and put it in the owner’s lap, keep my eyes out for loose purses and get them in their proper laps. It never occurred to me that one of these characters might have a gun. Even if somebody has a gun, how do you know who the good guy and who the bad guy is? I would think that restaurant owners, like concert promoters, would be interested in having no guns in the crowd. It is common to be searched at the entrance to a concert or as we were when Obama came to speak and 15,000 people showed up. And at the Mariners game! So now who gets to decide who gets to pack the gun?

  3. I’ll go on record as guessing that this may be the first food related blog to tackle gun politics. No hard evidence, just a guess..heh.

    That said: WOW. Well written, Jess, with that surprise coming that the doctor was the gunman…because I was sitting here reading it, thinking: THEY LET THE GUY BACK IN TO SIT DOWN AND CONTINUE WITH HIS DINNER?!?!?!?!?! Tough folks, those Tacoma diners.

    Conceled carry is a sticky issue. I think it’s allowed here in Florida (or is it allowed in cars so we can shoot each other on the crazy Florida highways? not certain). I know it was allowed in Kentucky, where I spent 11 years. Loved the signs posted on the doors saying “No concealed weapons allowed.” Oh, that’ll do it.

    All that said? I’d go there for dinner. Food sounds great. And Shit happens. I just hope I’m not ever served that gunpoint course.

  4. That’s really scary! And while being robbed is upsetting, pulling a gun on a robber in a crowded place seems sort of extreme. I would assume most people didn’t know what was going on and it isn’t like the doctor said something like the other man was robbing them and not to let him leave or something. Good thing he didn’t shoot!

  5. Beth

    The mugger did go into the back room twice and had physically threatened someone back there. Freezing (or remaining calm as I like to call it) was the perfect reaction. Best not to distract the gun-toting doctor from his objective.

    As Babette said, concealed carry laws differ from state to state. Washington requires an extensive criminal background check and no one in the applicant’s immediate family can have been charged with certain felonies. Idaho requires the applicant to safely demonstrate use of the firearm. Maryland is so messed up, you don’t want to know.

    I’m just glad the guy wasn’t a thinking criminal, as he could have mugged any of the several female diners there that night.

    On a much more tasty note, those tater tots were amazing! Chunky and mashed potatoey at the same time, with that tangy hit from the Oregon Blue! The way you wished cafeteria tater tots were. The tuna tartare was suberb. Divine, even.

    Don’t let this incident stop any of you from eating at Pacific Grill.

  6. Wow that is hella frightening. I’d like to believe that Canada is immune to guns and violence, but the reality is that guns are certainly being used for crimes and it freaks me out.

  7. crazy stuff. here in tennessee, it’s illegal to carry a concealed weapon in restaurants with a bar, although legislation has been introduced to change that. because really, what’s a bar fight without the deadly firearms?

    seriously though — glad you’re ok. i would have freaked the hell out, no way could i have made it through dinner.

  8. J-P

    Jess – so glad you guys got out with, relatively, no violence. I just can’t imagine that situation and I went to school in Tacoma (the only thing I worried about was the occasional smell from the mills).

    Weird that this happened to you because, in Nashville, there was an armed hold-up a month or so ago and an armed by-stander pulled a concealed weapon and killed one of the robbers. Sad to say, this was applauded by most who heard, so it was great to get your perspective of non-armed by-stander…. It’s scary and sad that we are still living in the “Wild West” today.

  9. Holy #@#*!!! I’m so glad everything turned out OK! A gun toting Dr. -that’s kind of bizarre. Does he have any clue as to how much he scared the #@*# out of people by doing that?

  10. Betty Richardson

    Hi Jessica:

    Your mom forwarded your article to me and I want to applaud you for addressing this unreal experience in your column. The events you described are the stuff of which nightmares are made. One expects to see this kind of scene play out on The Sopranos, not in real life. I am so terribly sorry you and the other diners were witnesses to violence, but I am grateful that you wrote so thoughfully about the experience. As always, you provided your readers with valuable insight and perspective.

    Best always,
    Betty Richardson

  11. has nothing to do with this post, but i found your flickr, and then found you here and… well. i food blog too and, your photos made me netstalk you so i could use some of your recipes/see how you play out your ideas.

    thanks for sharing such good stuff.

  12. Oh my god! I am shaking reading about this! It really is like something out of the Godfather, only you’re the one who sees what happens AFTER Michael gets the gun from the bathroom.

    I’m glad you’re ok and able to tell us about it (and the tater tots). I’d say that is an unforgettable experience!

  13. Bree

    Holy crap! I saw that story on the news, and read about it in the paper, but I never would have guessed that one of my favorite people was actually THERE when it happened! That’s freakin’ scary, and I am SO happy and relieved that you’re okay. And that the dinner was worth staying for.🙂 It sounds to me, though, like it’s a darn good thing that doctor was carrying and stopped the mugger in his tracks. If the bad guys are the only ones carrying guns, the rest of us are in trouble. This is a classic case of self-defense. If somebody tried to mug me in the middle of my dinner out at a nice restaurant, I’d have done the same thing, even though I only carry a stun gun.

  14. cookie.diva

    Oh lord, I spent an evening hidden under a table while numerous guys with assult rifles robbed the place. (Rather obviously, it’s a long story.) One man (a hotel manager) was killed; if more people with guns were around to “protect”, we would’ve been in the midst of a crazy shoot-out.

    Don’t say, “you’ll never go back”, but don’t feel like you have push yourself, either.

  15. Jurjen S.

    Actually, the relevant constituional provision here is not so much the Second Amendment as Article I, Section 24 of the Washington state constitution, which reads:

    The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired, but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain or employ an armed body of men.

    I’m worried about coming off as confrontational here, but I’m honestly trying to understand:
    Why is the thought of a citizen–one who undergone background checks by state and federal agencies to make sure he has no outstanding warrants, or felony or misdemeanor domestic violence convictions–carrying a firearm for self-defense in public more alarming than the fact that someone like John Meys is willing to come into a restaurant where you are eating and start threatening the staff and assaulting patrons (which might all to easily include you)?

    Similar question for you, cookie.diva:
    You say that the armed robbers in your situation had already murdered the manager. Under Washington state law, wilfully and unlawfully killing someone in furtherance of first- or second-degree robbery (among other things) constitutes aggravated first-degree murder, which makes you eligible for the death penalty. I don’t know that you were in Washington, but many other states have similar provisions. Once you’re eligible for the most severe punishment the state can inflict after the first murder, it doesn’t matter whether you kill a few more; the state can only execute you once, so you might as well eliminate the witnesses as well. If you’ve ever seen Heat, or at least the armored truck robbery at the beginning, you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

    So my question to you is: why is it worse to be caught in a firefight than it is to be at the unopposed mercy of an armed robber-murderer who has reason to want you dead?

    I don’t want insinuate either of you is a fool, but I do wonder whether you’ve entirely thought this kind of thing through.

  16. Thanks for all your comments – much appreciated.

    And Jurjen, thanks – for your correction, comments and questions. You have a good point.

    For me, personally, I don’t think it’s more dangerous to be in the same room as a checked-and-cleared gunholder. But my perception (and maybe I’m wrong here) is that not all guns are owned by folks who have gone through the paperwork. I’m afraid of the John Meyses who also have guns, who could potentially escalate situations like the one I faced into so-called shootouts.

    I think trying to predict what would have happened with a second gun in the room is impossible – and unnecessary, frankly. I just find it a little ironic that the only time I’ve seriously feared my life would end with a bullet, the gun in question belonged to a non-criminal.

    So, to answer your question: John Meys alarmed me. He is a criminal, but I’m not convinced he would have actually hurt anyone, including me, if he had assaulted me. The gunman made me fear for my life. He “resolved” the situation, but I’m not convinced every gunowner in his position would have acted as authoritatively, or that his actions were necessary. But that’s just me.

    But – honestly – thanks. We all have different opinions about this sort of thing, and as with anything else, dialogue is good.

  17. cookie.diva

    Actually, my experience happened in another country, so my earlier response to the event has nothing to do with our constitutional rights. Jess asked about states, but I was more responding to the adrenaline rush of being somewhere–anywhere–where someone pulls a gun. It sucks, and it kind of keeps sucking for a while.

    I am a big fan of our constitution as-is…but we’ve always been a country that pits the rights of the small community against federal citizenship, and that’s an endless cycle, be it alcohol consumption, display of religious symbols at a courthouse, voter ID, marriage, transfat Crisco, censorship or carrying a firearm.
    I think it’s that local-vs-federal debate that makes a democratic reupblic rock. Geez, imagine how much we’d get done with an informed citizenry!
    (And Jess, I loved your bee/honey story in Seattle Metropolitan…)

  18. Thanks, cookie.diva!

  19. oh my! Thanks for being brave and sharing this.

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