January 19th, the day before President Obama’s inauguration, has been unofficially named “Gun Appreciation Day” by gun-loving conservatives. They’ll be out in droves brandishing their six-shooters, flags and copies of the constitution — that’s what their website advises. (Reminds me of a few years ago when a bunch of old fat white guys decided to have an “open carry” day in my community. They dressed in their camo, strapped on their guns and went to a playground frequented by moms and pre-schoolers. Classy.)
I don’t normally write about personal experiences, but this story needs telling. Other than law enforcement and military personnel, few people have been threatened with a firearm. When I heard that ridiculous notion of arming classroom teachers, I thought about my brush with an angry gun owner.
In the summer of 1990, I managed a branch of a major bank in the relative backwater of Northwest Michigan. In that capacity, I accepted applications for a variety of small loans — “products” as we referred to them. As a rule, potential borrowers tend to be excruciatingly courteous during the application process — well dressed, well mannered. So when a lanky, unkempt young man wearing a second-hand store army jacket, with stringy blonde hair and an overly forward attitude, came through the doors insisting, in no uncertain terms, that I was to approve a line of credit on his new checking account, it put me on alert — but not enough so.
He returned later that day and pulled me aside to say that if I did not extend him credit he would return with his gun and “blow [my] fucking head off”. (He didn’t actually use the words “extend credit”, being equally crude in that language as well, but for obvious reasons, all I clearly remember is the “blow your fucking head off” part of the conversation.)
A funny thing happens in the moment of this kind of danger — the threatened person experiences a delayed reaction of slow-mo realization of what is actually transpiring. I watched him exit the building and, through the window, drive away, making absolutely no note of the make, model and color of his vehicle. I went up to the teller line, looked at my employees and, stunned, just stood there utterly mute for quite some time, until my astute head teller asked me if I was alright.
After years of banking experience, and of training my staff on proper procedure — what was this dull response all about? I just stood there, dumbstruck. Having drilled my staff, on a monthly basis for years, on security measures until their eyes rolled with boredom, none of it clicked for me in the moment.
Every time there was a rash of bank robberies, we doubled-down on our immediate response procedures. Just a year prior, after a particularly brutal bank robbery, we brought in FBI agents to train us on how to recognize a threat, focus on observing the suspicious person and on identifying weapons. I had literally dozens upon dozens of hours of training on what to do when faced with the wrong end of a gun, and none of it kicked-in for what seemed an eternity. We had foot-alarms, till-alarms, desk-alarms, marked bills, code words…and I just stood there like a complete idiot.
There’s an old Russian proverb: “When the guns talk, the muses fall silent”. It refers to the muting effect of the threat of wartime violence on the arts, but anyone who has been threatened personally can appreciate that mental pause that results. While standing there, in my blue power suit and slingback pumps, I was completely ill-prepared to swing into action of any kind. Armed professionals with extensive firearms training, like police and soldiers, are shot all the time, so anyone who thinks a kindergarten teacher is going to be able to quick-draw on a bad guy is simply fooling themselves.
Luckily, everything worked-out, although there were a few stressful weeks to get through.
After recovering from my brief catatonic attack, I contacted local police who ran a check on the man and found he had two felony charges pending — one for assault and battery and the other for malicious destruction of property. The court ordered him to turn over his weapon and issued a toothless restraining order that only protected me while on bank property. Local law enforcement kept an eagle-eye on my would-be shooter, and the bank brought-in “extra security” in the form of a male presence in our all female office.
The local prosecutor ended-up plea bargaining both charges down to misdemeanors, and the individual was returned his weapon. Local police did what smalltown cops do — they went to his door and told him to leave town and never come back. He left, and to my knowledge never returned.
Not once did I consider getting a firearm of my own. The statistics show that gun-ownership increases the likelihood of being shot. I knew that I could not successfully use it to protect myself, and besides — I’m relatively certain I couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn.
Amy Kerr Hardin
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