I live in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere. But we do have three coffee shops.  I went to one yesterday. A guy was just leaving the order window. He had a pistol strapped to his side. First time I’ve seen that here. You read about that happening in places like Texas. But here?

My first thought was to get out of there. But I didn’t want a different coffee shop. I wanted this one. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to shoot me, or anyone else. He was with his wife, they were meeting another couple at a table as far away as possible. Probably safe. So I stayed.

So did the gun.

I kept my eyes on it. And on his hands – whether he reached for it unconsciously, making sure it was still there, still ready.

He didn’t.

I wondered what kind of fear makes someone pack heat in broad daylight in a tiny coffee shop in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere.

The answer is, high stress fear. Survival-level fear. Fight or flight level fear. The kind of instinctual fear that shoots adrenaline and cortisol through the system, puts everything on high alert and never shuts it off.

Hair trigger fear.

Shoot first ask questions later fear.

The gun was how he makes his declaration to the world:  “I’m free. Free means I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” The gun was his Great Wall of China, his Maginot Line, his moat full of alligators around his castle. His gun isolates him, sets him apart. He’s always one up on the rest of us. Try anything, and we’re dead. His gun makes him safe. He’ll survive. He’ll be the last man standing.

It made me wary. Where I live, you need to learn what to do if you see a wild animal on the trail – bear, mountain lion, wolf, bull elk. Stay calm, still. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t run. Make yourself as big as you can. Carry a bear bell, maybe pepper spray. And all the rest.

It’s not that wild animals don’t like you. That’s not why they attack. They do it to stay alive. You’re a threat by definition. They can’t take chances. They’re not going to play nice, make friends. You invade their space, they’ll let you know it. You don’t get the message, they’ll take you out.

You don’t win an attack like that.

It’s like when I was a kid, and my friend told me about going to the state fair in the big city and the tough guys who hung out, picking fights with the country rubes. Don’t ever look at them, he advised. He grabbed my shirt, pulled me up close. “You lookin’ at me, kid?” he snarled.

No provocation. You’re at risk just by being there.

At one point the gunman left, got something from his car, came back, passed my table in both directions. I watched his eyes, where he looked, listened to how he talked There was a self-consciousness about him – like a kid who knows he’s being watched, who’s thinking “look at me” and “don’t look at me” at the same time.

The barista closed up shop for the day, hung the “closed” sign. The guy with the gun and the rest of the people at his table got up to leave. He looked for a place to toss his cup. He went up to the window, knocked on it.

“I think they’re closed,” I said. Bad move.

The barista opened back up, took the cup.

He passed our table.

“Have a blessed day,” he said. He pronounced “blessed” with two syllables, offering a benediction that completed the equation. Not only was he armed, he was a soldier in the army of an angry God — like I’ve seen on a T-shirt in a local shop:  a cross, an assault weapon, and the words, “Come and take it.”

He was wild, he was free, and he had God on his side.

I was at risk, just by being there.

I kept still, silent.

Inside, I deflected his blessing. “No thanks,” I thought. “No blessing for me from your God.”

I kept my eyes averted, said nothing.

He went off to the rest of his wild and free day.

I went home, grateful that I know what to do when I meet a wild animal on the trail.

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