The West Gets Wilder

March 27, 2017

Stop Sign | Out West Somewhere
When you think of all the things you might go to a public library to get — “shot” should not be on the list. Which is why I didn’t even stand up when a loud bang echoed through the Fairbanks public library last Wednesday afternoon. I did jump in my seat. I did look up from my work. When I did that, I saw a small group of people hustling past. A young man was holding his right forearm bloodied in front of his body, cradling it with his left hand. I heard chatter that an electrical charger had exploded. It took a while for folks to figure out that a bullet had passed through his arm.

Here’s how the Alaska Dispatch News put it:

The Fairbanks Police Department responded to the Noel Wien Public Library at about 1:15 p.m. Wednesday to aid a man who reportedly had been hurt “when a cellphone charger plugged into an outlet exploded,” according to a release from the City of Fairbanks.

Firefighters requested help from police after realizing the victim’s injuries were caused by a bullet, the release says.

A preliminary investigation by a responding officer found the man was seated at a table working on his laptop. “He was struck by a bullet which ricocheted off a wall and access panel before entering and exiting his right forearm,” police said.

The officer recovered the bullet at the scene. No other people were injured.

Where the bullet came from remains a mystery. Officials said no gun was seen nor were there any reports of disputes between the victim and anyone in the library.

Because there were a couple of library stacks between the commotion and me, I didn’t see anything but the injured man passing and then some people walking back and forth to investigate, talking about the exploding electrical panel. In fact, I didn’t learn what really happened until Stewart sent me a link to this article, knowing that I’ve been going to the library to work. I had to tell him I was sitting about twenty feet away when the guy got shot.

I’m shocked by my oblivion. I had my heart set on finishing a project that afternoon and when I’m working on a deadline, even self-imposed, my focus narrows to an obsessively fine point. The shot rang out and I simply moved to the “quiet room,” so I could go on working. It’s clear that this incident was a one-off accident and it was obvious I wasn’t needed to help — but I always assumed that if I were in a public place when shots were fired, I would at least notice. 

It probably won’t surprise you to know that Alaska’s gun laws are some of the most lenient in the nation. Alaska state law allows most people 21 or older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. There are exceptions, of course, like you can’t bring a gun into a K-12 school without explicit permission. But according to current policies, you can go right ahead pack heat at the public library, and that seems to agree with the law in a majority of states.

I’m not against guns in all circumstances (Stewart and I keep a rifle at the cabin for self-defense) but this seems crazy. Who needs to bring a gun to the library? That bullet could easily have passed through that young man’s head — or mine, bent over my laptop working on a friend’s website on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. Poof. What will it take before we can go to school or to the store or to the movies or to worship or to the public library without worrying we might catch a bullet for it?

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