Fully Automatic

17 Feb

The Plinkas and I were on our way home from Easter choir rehearsal, and XX was starving even though it had only been 2 hours since lunch (unfortunately, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). I’d been wanting to try a new pizza place that sold by the slice, so we popped in and munched together on slices of Hawaiian and 4-cheese.  On Hillwood in Tsim Sha Tsui, it is a typical Hong Kong  local joint open to street level, hardly bigger than a roadside kiosk. We sat all the way to the back at one of only three tables. We were halfway through our pie, when we heard a loud POP. Followed by four more… POP, POP, POP, POP growing increasingly loud. The first one unsettled me because my brain knew what it was but my heart said I was mistaken. By the fifth, I had pushed the twins under the table in front of my legs. There was complete silence as the shop boys, who hadn’t moved since the shooting started, each cautiously stuck their heads out to “assess” the situation. I gave the Plinkas a very sternly whispered, “Don’t. Move.” and myself went out to see. POP, POP. This time I could see the flashes as the gun went off three more times. A mass of people ran through the street screaming until… the camera crew signaled them to stop. Obviously, incredibly relieved, we all smiled nervously at one another and settled back into our seats. We finished our pizza and went on about our day.

This post is less about what happened and more about the moment’s rapid-fire thoughts (pun intended) and subsequent introspection that has occurred in the hours since.

The fact is, it took THREE shots for me to decide to get my children under the table. The two relevant points here are that 1) I grew up in Texas, and 2) I have lived in some pretty sketch places and on two separate occasions had drive-bys  at the house next door, so I am no stranger to the sound of gunfire. I knew in my mind it was a shooter, but I so wanted to believe it was something else that I sat and actually thought before acting. These were my thoughts in what was probably less than 40 seconds:


that sounds like a gun

it must be construction


or a taxi backfiring

no, it really sounds like a gun

but this is Hong Kong

on a Sunday afternoon

no one has “guns” in Hong Kong

well criminals can always get/make guns

still probably rare in HK

(this is the point I put my children under the table)

I can’t fit under the table

I really hope it is construction

no construction on Sundays

a criminal in HK who is sophisticated enough to carry a weapon probably wouldn’t gun people down indiscriminately – they aren’t after me – so I just need to worry about stray bullets and keep low

I’m glad we sat all the way at the back

POP, POP, complete silence

I crouched facing the street with the Plinkas behind me, giving the occasional hush. The silence endured for about 90 seconds, during which time I listened, unanswered, for screams, sirens, anything. I imagined a gunman in trenchcoat, full-on Columbine style, walking a now vacant street just looking for the next open, captive, audience of victims… which gave me a new sense of panic as my mind raced through possible scenarios, hiding places, exit points, and potential weaponry (as if I would have a clue what to do with a makeshift weapon, anyway, but Mama Bear was willing to try!). The boys looked confused by the sounds, but not worried, and mentioned the poor maintenance on local taxis, chalking it all up to backfire, I suppose.

It was like the silence was equally creepy and calming – much like the lull a horror movie will goad you into before the big fright.

I went to the opening of the restaurant because I didn’t feel like I could just sit back and wait. I had to know what was going on. I got to the sidewalk just in time to hear the gun fire two more times and was close enough I could see the flash for the final three shots, people running and screaming… and the camera. Thank God for the camera. With no notice to local businesses and with no barricades in the street, they were filming. Sure it was all a false alarm, and the boys in the shop thought it was pretty funny that I had to get my kiddos out from under the table, but it set me to thinking long and hard, today, about my reaction, my reaction time, how both of those were (possibly) affected by my nationality, as well as considering some new points on gun controls.

First, let me be completely self-critical. I reacted slowly, poorly, and neither in my, nor my children’s best interests… and I am ashamed by it. 10 shots in under 3 minutes, with a giant void in the middle. I know what a gun sounds like. I should have been putting my kids under the table by the second shot and trusted my instincts, not sitting around in disbelief, “hoping” it was a false alarm. And then… I walked out to the sidewalk. Seriously. Would it have killed me to wait 90 seconds? No. But had that been an actual shooter, walking to the sidewalk certainly could have.

I started my introspection through this self-critique – initially just kicking myself for the potential stupidity. It made me wonder – how much did my “Americanism” play a role in my reactions? It is true that no one else was under a table, and I don’t think anyone else was beating themselves up for not having gotten under one sooner. But I am an American. I am accustomed to friends with guns, neighbors with guns, gangs with guns, and psychos with guns. As a child we knew not to use the super-prime  Hide-and Seek bushes on either side of Alice-the-Poodle-Lady’s house because she had a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it. Not that she ever fired it, but we all had fair warning not to do anything that would even remotely allow us to be confused with a prowler. And while I sat up groggy in my bed during the first drive-by shooting, with multiple rapid-fire guns, when the second one happened I was in a ball on my bathroom floor within seconds, long enough to hear over the sounds of AK fire in the front, a shooter with a bolt-action rifle standing in my back yard firing on the house next door. Yes, it sounds just like the movies. And what really struck me – I remember having the exact same thought – they aren’t after me. But that was almost 15 years ago. That was before Columbine, Batman, and Sandy Hook. Random gunfire means something different now. The shooter doesn’t have to be  after you. While I, admittedly, sat there for wasted seconds when I should have been reacting, everyone else did nothing. At all. They just sat staring at one another like deer in the headlights. My first thought was disbelief that they all made themselves such easy targets… like people walking across a college campus… or sitting in a movie theater… or attending kindergarten. How horrific. Horrific that these things happen at all and horrific that I am in the minority mindset that jumped to “mass shooter” in under a minute… horrific for me, not for them. What beautiful bliss that they weren’t filled with impending terror and thoughts of massive death. What a sad fact it is, that I feel like a bad mother for not getting my kids under the table sooner? By the tenth shot, the street was full of bystanders trying to figure out what was going on. Was I the only one fearful of a deranged spree killer? I think so. Was it because I am from America where there were 16 Mass Shootings in 2012 alone? Every aspect of the conversation makes me ill. And let God help Hong Kongers if a spree shooter ever does go off.

I would hate for you to be reading this and think that I am a helicopter mom and/or a crazy alarmist, or even someone who wants to ban guns. I am none of those. But I am someone who thinks it is high time we take a long hard look at what we do and do not want in our civilized society and what that means in response to our so-called “freedoms”. I can go on and on about the Second Amendment – what I think it means, how antiquated I feel the entire document is and how it needs to be addressed within the context of our modern times, but I will save that all for a future and more private conversation. Feel free to PM me. What I will say is that today, I came to four conclusions through experience, not cerebral exercise:

1) This is a horrible fact of our world, and I need to decide what is right for me with regards to “appropriate response”. It makes me sick.

2) I have no idea how much damage I can do to someone with a pizza spatula and a fire extinguisher… and I hope I never get the opportunity to find out.

3) I was very glad that the shots weren’t coming any faster than they were.

4) At the end of the day, this is Hong Kong, not America. Guns are scarce, and I can take some solace in that.

I support gun ownership and I do believe guns have a valuable place in society. There was a moment today where I certainly wished I was “packing”, and I would have felt much better had any of my fellow patrons or cashier had been as well. (Remember, I said I’m from Texas.) However, assault rifles and fully automatic weapons should be banned from society. I have personally seen the damage they can do in the hands of gang members and after today, I feel I have a fraction of personal insight into a mass shooter experience. I can only imagine that the real thing is a thousand million times worse. We should work diligently to eliminate assault rifles and fully-automatic weapons from our streets. Of course that takes time; they didn’t get out there in a day and they won’t disappear so quickly either, but we needn’t keep pouring fuel on the fire. If you think you need to shoot twenty rounds into a deer from a blind or you need them to rise up against a tyrannical government, we can have that conversation. I can go there. I was just happy to have “time” today. Time to make decisions. Time to get my children under a table. Time to locate exits and makeshift weapons. It doesn’t matter if it was real in the end; it was real in the moment, and I did the best I could.



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