A local waitress who fired her gun at three fleeing robbers and lost her job over it is finding support from other gun owners.
Heather Burkinshaw-Stanley, known as “Shorty” to her friends and customers, had been working third shift for the Waffle House on 1363 S. Highway 29 for almost two years.
On Thursday morning, Stanley was doing prep work when a man approached the cashier after finishing his meal. Along with two other men, he produced a note demanding money from the cashier or everyone in the restaurant would be shot, according to Stanley.
“The waitress walked by me, cool as a cucumber and said, ‘We just got robbed,’” Stanley recalled.
Stanley stopped what she was doing, ran to her car in the parking lot and grabbed a 9mm pistol and fired a single shot toward the fleeing robbers.
“I wasn’t sure if they were coming back or not,” she said. “I was in fear for my life, my co-worker’s life, and I did what I thought was right.”
Unfortunately, Waffle House disagreed with the decision.
Friday morning, a local news station showed up on her doorstep asking for an interview. She declined to talk and called her manager instead to explain what had just happened.
“He said he’d call his manager and find out what was going on,” she said.
After 45 minutes of waiting, she called him back and was told that she was terminated due to firing her gun.
“They said if I had just pulled it out and not fired it, that would have been a different story,” she said.
“All the managers tried to go to bat for me because they care about us, but corporate doesn’t. Put yourself in that situation, what would you have done?”
Pat Warner, spokesperson for Waffle House, said restaurant employees are trained what to do in a situation like an armed robbery based on company protocols.
While Warner declined to explicitly state what training consists of, he insists the head of the security department is constantly working to ensure their safety measures are sharp.
“We’re a 24-hour restaurant, so we have to take steps to make sure people are taken care of,” he said.
However, Warner stressed that personnel decisions are made on the local level, not corporate.
“Our local management team has the authority to do what they think is best and will consult with the security department here,” he said. “With any personnel issue, you have to look at all the facts. We’re still gathering information and looking into the circumstances.”
Many gun advocates say Stanley should have exercised better judgment. For one thing, state law regarding self-protection would have given her a clear defense if she was using her gun to defend herself or someone else. But she chose to fire after the robbers began running away, which shows her danger had diminished.
“That’s always what you want to do when the bad guy runs,” said Gary DeGeorge, owner of Atlanta Range and Ordnance in Newnan. “You want retaliation, but that violates one of the four rules of gun safety – to be sure of your target and what is beyond it.”
While he doesn’t necessarily support her decision to fire at the fleeing robbers, he sympathizes with her situation, citing that no one wants to be a victim. Safety and training are the cornerstones of being a responsible gun owner, according to DeGeorge, and he has offered her a complimentary comprehensive firearms and safety training class at the range.
“Law enforcement trains out to 25 yards,” he said. “Let’s face it, most people aren’t adequately trained to do what they do.”
Local resident Dennis Jones was also at the gun range on Saturday morning and was happy to see Stanley there. He supported her decision to defend the restaurant and believes the restaurant is a safer place with her on duty.
“I wish more women were like her,” he said. “I think it was stupid for Waffle House to fire her. It would be nice to eat in peace and not have to look over your shoulder.”
However, there have been plenty of mixed emotions about her decision.
“Shooting a firearm in the air is stupid,” newspaper reader Chris Gaddy noted in a comment on the initial news story. “The bullet has to come down somewhere, just hope it’s not someone’s head.”
Others warn that so-called “cowboy heroics” can endanger other members of the public and tarnish the reputation of all gun owners.
“Amazing to read all these ‘good guy with a gun’ fantasies. There needs to be a shootout out over a few hundred bucks?” commented reader Russell Campbell.
“Of course, in these fantasies the bad guys always get it right between the eyes and are dead. In real life, the crooks sometimes shoot back, and the employees and customers are endangered or even dead,” Campbell continued. “If your child worked at that Waffle House and there was a shootout and you found out your child died because someone wanted to defend a few hundred dollars, would you think that was worth it?”
Jerry Henry, executive director of the Fayetteville-based Georgia Carry gun-rights group, is familiar with the restaurant and others in the area that have been the subject of repeated robberies.
“I’m happy that she was prepared to defend herself. I think that is a mistake for the company to continue to put their employees in harm’s way,” he said.
Waffle House restaurants all have signs declaring them as gun-free zones. Under Georgia law, that means the business owner can eject from the premises any member of the public carrying a firearm. Having one doesn’t violate the law, but ignoring the company’s verbal warning would amount to trespassing, Henry said.
Having her gun in her car in the parking lot isn’t a violation, according to Henry.
“I do not blame her for defending herself and I’m sorry she got fired. I think the company is in the wrong.”
He argues discouraging weapons merely notifies thieves that they’ll encounter no armed resistance.
Waffle House is a gun-free zone at all 1,800 of its restaurants across the country. In response to criticism from gun-rights advocates, Warner said all viewpoints were considered when the policy was set and when it comes up for consideration. As a family-friendly restaurant, it strives for policies that make everyone feel welcome.
“We respect everyone’s opinion,” he said. “We just feel, for our company, this is the best policy to have in place, and this is a policy that a lot of companies have.”
Tennessee recently enacted a law that makes property owners liable for any injuries or damages that result from an armed attack against someone with a gun permit who is disarmed because of a business' gun-free policy. Georgia gun-rights advocates plan to push for similar legislation here when the General Assembly meets next month and is expected to consider a bill to relax gun restrictions on college campuses.
"A lot of states are looking at it since it passed in Tennessee, and I'd like to see something like that here," Henry said.
Clay Neely: firstname.lastname@example.org, @clayneely