I vividly remember watching news accounts of the Columbine shootings in 1999. As a middle school student at the time, it felt too close to home, and left me wondering, what would I do in such a …
I vividly remember watching news accounts of the Columbine shootings in 1999. As a middle school student at the time, it felt too close to home, and left me wondering, what would I do in such a horrifying situation?
In the years that followed, more mass shootings followed in America. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Charleston. Orlando. Sutherland Springs. Las Vegas. Parkland. Tragically, too many to list.
When I read about a shooting, the thought that haunted me as a 14-year-old often resurfaces: What would I do?
I recently got an unwelcome glimpse at an answer.
On an August weekend, my mom and I headed to Billings with my 2-year-old son in tow. In the days of COVID, we hadn’t been to Billings for a few months.
After leaving a store, my mom and I talked about where to go for lunch. We wanted something quick with outdoor seating, and ended up going to Dairy Queen on the west end, not far from Kohl’s, our third and final stop.
As we finished our lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon, my mom remarked how nice of a day it was in Billings, and I nodded, watching my happy toddler eat another french fry.
A few moments later, we heard a loud bang. Being close to a busy intersection, I initially thought it was a car backfiring or maybe fireworks coming from the residential area nearby. More shots quickly followed, and my mom and I looked at each other, fearing this was not innocent fireworks.
A woman waiting in a white car in the drive-thru started yelling at us to get down. “Those are gunshots!” she yelled.
I grabbed my 2-year-old son, looked at my mom and we tried to find the safest place possible.
We couldn’t go to my car, since it was parked close to where the shots were coming from. We didn’t dare go into the restaurant, unsure if that’s where the shooter had gone. I thought about running to a nearby building, but I pictured a shooter coming around the corner. That fear left me feeling helpless, not knowing where we would be safe. As a mother, I can’t describe how truly terrible this felt.
While these thoughts raced through my head, the woman in the white car told us to hide behind her vehicle. It seemed like our only option.
I was both scared and angry in that moment: This should not be happening. How could this be real?
Holding my baby boy close, my mom and I crouched behind the car. I watched a silver vehicle speed through the parking lot, over the curb and slip into traffic. We would later learn that was the alleged shooter.
We stayed behind the kind stranger’s car, but didn’t hear any more gunfire. A young Dairy Queen employee came over to the patio where we had been sitting only moments before, and asked if we were OK. I said yes, and asked if he knew what was happening.
“That guy is dead,” he replied, pointing to a Subaru parked nearby, not far from the restaurant’s front door.
Soon police started arriving, and we got into our vehicle, just a few parking spots away from where the man was shot. As I strapped my son into his car seat, I wondered if I was doing the best thing to keep him safe. What if the gunman was still nearby?
The police’s presence helped put my mind at ease, but I kept looking at my sweet son in the rearview mirror, praying for his safety. While we wanted nothing more than to be as far from that parking lot as possible, we were blocked in by emergency vehicles and other cars.
Remarkably, the unflappable Dairy Queen employees carried on with their jobs, serving customers who were stuck in the drive-thru. They showed genuine kindness and poise amid a chaotic situation.
As we waited to exit the parking lot, my mom and I just kept repeating: “Praise God we’re OK. Thank you, Lord, for keeping us safe.” We’re incredibly grateful God protected us as we sat on the patio, just around the corner from the shooting.
After we finally left the parking lot, I called my husband CJ, who was in Powell, to tell him what happened and reassure him we were OK.
We later learned a 25-year-old man from Billings was killed, and the suspect is a 30-year-old man who turned himself in to police. The two had been involved in a dispute on social media. I was sad to learn both men were so young. One was killed senselessly, and the other will likely spend much of his life in prison.
While my heart goes out to the victim and the families involved, I was so relieved that afternoon when I realized this was not a random shooting. In today’s America, the threat of an active shooter randomly opening fire at a crowded family restaurant on a Saturday afternoon doesn’t seem unrealistic. My heart breaks that this is true in America — restaurants, churches, schools, hospitals, movie theaters and other safe places should not be sites of deadly shootings.
I don’t know how to solve America’s gun violence problems. The issues are complex and certainly controversial, and solutions can’t just be political, but cultural and spiritual as well.
My personal views on firearms haven’t changed since witnessing the shooting in Billings that afternoon. What did change was my appreciation for each day.
I am so thankful for the time I get with my loved ones, and I won’t take for granted the calm days we share in our small town. While 2020 has meant our gatherings look different — and sometimes are virtual or with a window separating us — I am grateful to share simple moments with our family and friends.
I also have hugged my son a little closer in recent days. He often giggles as he wiggles away from a hug, running to his next adventure of toddlerhood. But sometimes, he stays still, allowing me to savor a fleeting minute with my not-so-little baby. I hold him close, and thank God for this moment.