After a rash of shootings, San Antonio bars are eager to protect themselves and their patrons

The recent spasm of gun violence outside drinking establishments hasn't spared the Alamo City.

click to enlarge An active-shooter training session held at San Antonio bar Sir Winston's in early June. - RICK GARCIA
Rick Garcia
An active-shooter training session held at San Antonio bar Sir Winston's in early June.

On Saturday, June 4, multiple shooters opened fire on Philadelphia's South Street, a strip known for its nightlife, leaving three dead and 11 wounded. Mere hours later, a shooting outside a Mesa, Arizona bar left two people dead and two wounded, and gunfire at a Chattanooga, Tennessee nightclub killed three people and wounded 14.

The recent spasm of gun violence outside drinking establishments hasn't spared the Alamo City. On May 14 and May 16, respectively, shootings at San Antonio nightspots Sir Winston's Pub and Hills and Dales Icehouse sent a total of three people to area hospitals after fistfights escalated into gunplay.

With the nation also reeling from back-to-back mass shootings at Uvalde's Robb Elementary School, a Buffalo, New York supermarket and a Tulsa, Oklahoma hospital, the string of gun violence has forced local bar staff to reckon with how to keep themselves and patrons safe.

"I was so scared, I didn't know what to do," said Steve Peña, who was tending bar at longtime northeast San Antonio bar Sir Winston's the night of the shooting. "All I knew was that I had to get people out of here."

During the first weekend in June, Peña, along with 10 other bar pros, attended an active-shooter training session at Sir Winston's. Their objective: learn what to do when someone with a gun aims to do harm.

"People with guns, violence — these things have been around forever. You throw alcohol into the mix, and that completely changes the equation," Hidalgo County Senior Deputy Rick Garcia, the session's trainer, told the Current. "The good thing about people in the service industry is that they're very, very good at reading people. ... Where the general public may be a little bit more blind to it or not as intuitive. So, we have to be able to identify when these issues are amping up, fueled by emotion and alcohol, and we have to be able to have plans and protocols in place that we can immediately implement."

Building on his decades of military and law enforcement training, Garcia created the curriculum for Hidalgo County's Active Shooter Awareness Program, which he's exported to training sessions outside the county. So far, he's taught the material to more than 50,000 civilians across Texas.

Unlike other workplaces where he's offered training — churches, schools and hospitals among them — bars and restaurants often lack the money to throw at extra security measures.

During the training, the deputy recommended bar staff talk with coworkers about exit routes, know potential hiding places and preemptively designate a spot to meet after an evacuation. Should an attack occur, Garcia said, basic knowledge of stop-the-bleed techniques could be the difference between life or death for an employee or patron.

"You're not talking about businesses that can afford to say, 'We're going to implement this safety measure, and we're going to install this type of door or alarm system, improve our video surveillance,'" Garcia said after the session. "The availability is just not there for the solutions that we throw out there for other businesses."

click to enlarge A broken jukebox screen that was hit by a stray bullet during the May shooting at Sir Winston's. - NINA RANGEL
Nina Rangel
A broken jukebox screen that was hit by a stray bullet during the May shooting at Sir Winston's.

Armed with education

Without those resources, the bars and nightclubs are best served by educating their workers on basic readiness, lock down and evacuation procedures, the deputy said.

Local drinking establishments are apparently taking that to heart.

A veritable Who's Who of SA bar owners — Jody Newman of the Friendly Spot Ice House, Terrin Fuhrman of Elsewhere Garden Bar & Kitchen, Justin Vitek of Hills and Dales Icehouse and Jessica Marinez of Picks Bar to name a few — are working with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office on educational materials to help nightspots prepare for active-shooter incidents.

Once complete, the Friendly Spot's Newman and friends will distribute the literature to local businesses so they can arm themselves with best practices and develop internal policies.

"I am most proud of our local independent operators that are stepping up to say, 'How do we protect our staff, our patrons and our neighborhoods from this uptick in violence?'" Newman said. "Those [businesses] that have the money can afford the experts. What about the businesses that can't? How do we get them the information that will help them safely navigate violent incidents in their establishments?"

On-site heat

Under Texas law, patrons can't carry a firearm into an establishment that derives more than 51% of its revenue from the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption. Just entering without brandishing the weapon is a third-degree felony, punishable with two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

However, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, an employee who's actively managing a 51% establishment can have access to a firearm for security purposes, either on their person or in an onsite safe or office.

"That [section of the code] is the one that outlines, among other things, reasons for cancellation of a TABC permit. One of those is having a firearm on the premises," said TABC spokesman Chris Porter. "One of the exceptions under that section is if they are a manager or some sort of authorized security service that's duly licensed."

However, that exception to the rule is still subject to its own limitations. Brandishing the weapon "just for the heck of it" can be code violation that costs the business its license, Porter said.

Last September, a new law passed by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature made it legal for most people 21 or over — the legal drinking age in Texas, coincidentally — to openly carry a handgun in a holster without a permit. It eliminated the provision in the state's previous open-carry law that people need to obtain a permit before they can pack.

Texas passed its law banning firearms from bars in 1993, predating the new open-carry law by nearly 30 years.

"The bar industry has fought for years for the ability to ban weapons from our establishments, and I think people don't give the alcohol industry enough credit for that," the Friendly Spot's Newman said. "I mean, I know when the open-carry law changed, we started seeing grocery stores and all of these other places make it clear that you couldn't bring a gun in. But the bar industry is decades ahead of that."

'There has to be a better way'

Gun violence is a subject that hits home for Newman. She and her family, including her husband and business partner Steve, witnessed the 2017 massacre at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay resort in which a lone gunman's shooting rampage killed 58 people and injured hundreds more.

Newman doesn't regret scheduling the Vegas trip spent with her family, however harrowing it became. But she laments that the incident resulted in the deaths of people who were simply trying to enjoy a country music concert. Allowing the potential for mass shootings to keep us away from spending time with others and doing the things we love shouldn't be an option.

"When I think about some of these violent incidents that are happening, I wonder, 'What's the choice? Is the choice to stay home and not to celebrate your friend's birthday?'" she asked. "There has to be a better way than that."

In Deputy Garcia's opinion, the choice for bar owners and employees is an easy one: prepare yourself and those around you.

"Those intent on harming others know people are going to be [at bars], because they're gathering places for the public," he said during the training session at Sir Winston's. "We can take the power away from them if we assess, discuss and implement well-conceived plans."

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