From KERA News:
Allen isn’t the kind of place most people associate with gun violence.
The suburb has quiet roads, manicured green lawns and minivans parked in the garages. The median income is over $118,000 according to U.S. census data. Kids go to well-funded schools with large football stadiums, and moms wear designer labels at school pick-up.
But the threat of gun violence is now very real. A mass shooting at an Allen mall claimed eight innocent lives. Beyond that, Allen also has seen a spike in gun-related homicides and suicides. This Collin County community — the epitome of a suburban lifestyle far-removed from the grit and potential dangers of the inner-city — is grappling with a new reality.
Allen had nine gun deaths in 2022 — only two were homicides. That number almost tripled in 2023. In addition to the deaths of the gunman at the mall and his eight victims, there were five more homicides and 12 suicides that year.
It wasn’t always that way. Cheryl Jackson, who graduated from Allen High School in 1986, said it used to have more dirt than people. There was one grocery store and one clothing store, Bealls.
“Those were the good old days where we all shop at Bealls, and we all looked the same when we went to school,” Jackson said.
There was also a strong sense of community. Jackson remembers playing with friends outside as a child until the streetlights came on. Neighbors loaned each other butter, sugar or anything else they needed.
But she said that connection is gone.
“Now it’s growing, and you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Jackson.
The Allen Premium Outlets opened in 2000. Today, it looks like any other outdoor mall at first glance. There are moms pushing their babies in strollers, friends meeting for coffee at Starbucks and shoppers browsing clothing racks.
But there are reminders of the mass shooting that happened in May peppered throughout the space. Every store from Armani to Bath and Body Works has a sign in the window that says “Allen Strong” with a little red heart inside the outline of the state of Texas.
There’s also large rusty orange stain on the concrete outside of the H&M where several of the victims died. Jackson said she noticed it immediately.
“I was looking going, is that blood?” she said.
The mass shooting, which was the second-largest in country this year to date, grabbed national attention for weeks. The picturesque suburb became infamous for something gruesome, which Jackson said is incomprehensible.
“It’s not what Allen’s associated with,” she said. “So when you hear of gun violence in Allen, it’s just like what?”
The death toll from gun violence in Allen has only increased since the shooting — fourteen more people died from gun violence leading up to the first week of September according to data from the Collin County Medical Examiner and Allen Police Department.
Most of those deaths were individual suicides. The rest were from two murder suicides that happened within days of each other around Labor Day.
Nicole Golden, the president of gun reform advocacy group Texas Gun Sense, said that’s not surprising.
“There are everyday gun deaths, whether due to domestic violence, other forms of interpersonal violence, suicide, that really are major contributors to the high numbers of gun deaths that we see,” Golden said.
Nationwide, most gun violence victims die by suicide. There have been 18,216 gun suicides in the U.S. as of early October according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, including 520 murder suicides, compared to 530 mass shootings. And the number of gun suicide deaths hit a record high last year according to data from the CDC.
Golden said mass shootings tend to get more attention than the everyday impact of gun violence that claims the lives of thousands more Americans every year.
“A lot of these deaths, when it’s one or two people, they just don’t hit major news headlines and people just may not be aware of them,” she said.
Close family members often don’t know when a loved one is struggling. A man who died in a murder suicide in late August made small talk with his mother before her morning walk according to an Allen Police incident report obtained by KERA.
“Nothing to indicate that something wasn’t right,” the report said.
The man, who is listed as the suspect in the incident report, was later found dead with his wife and their two children aged 11 and one. All four of them had been shot. A Glock 48 pistol was found at the scene between the man’s legs.
The man’s family called the police after the mother returned from her walk to a locked house. She was so grief-stricken that the police weren’t able to interview her. They spoke to another family member instead.
A few days later, a mother and her two children were also found dead at Allen’s Spirit Park.
Christina Coultas, the CEO of Collin County’s family violence center, Hope’s Door New Beginning, said mental health issues and family violence can be isolating.
“There’s a lot of more…reward to having the perfect picture stay perfect,” Coultas said.
Murder suicides that involve a firearm have gone up in Texas every year since 2020 according to data from the gun violence archive. Coultas said the presence of a firearm in a home increases a domestic violence victim’s homicide risk 500 times.
Seven people died in the murder suicides that happened around Labor Day weekend, including four children. That’s around the same number of people that were killed at the outlet mall. But Jackson said those deaths haven’t been talked about as much as the shooting in May.
“That’s the thing about these type of communities,” she said. “You really don’t want that kind of stuff to hit in the news.”
Alissa Wallace said people from Allen haven’t forgotten about the mall shooting.
“It’s always on our mind,” Wallace said.
Wallace is a volunteer with the Collin County Moms Demand Action chapter, a group that advocates for gun reforms like red flag laws and safe firearm storage. She joined the group after the Santa Fe High School shooting.
Wallace said several people joined Moms Demand Action after the shooting at the outlet mall. And a large group of supporters from all over the county rallied in an Allen park days after the shooting. The crowd called out lawmakers who have refused to support gun reforms, chanting “vote them out.”
Golden said most people support common sense gun reforms, like background checks and increasing the age to buy a firearm in Texas to 21. A University of Texas at Austin survey found that 76% of Texans said they support raising the age. But Governor Greg Abbott has said he said he opposes doing so.
Kat Vargas, a Moms Demand Action volunteer from Plano, told KERA at the protest that there’s a reason many politicians don’t support gun reforms.
“Our lawmakers are beholden to the gun lobby and extremists and unwilling to put the lives of our children before that,” she said.
Abbott got more than $20,000 from the gun lobby for his most recent campaign, according to Follow the Money. Texas State Representative Jeff Leach, whose district includes parts of Allen, received $1,750 according to Follow the Money.
Leach spoke on the House floor during the memorial recognition for the Allen shooting victims. He said he didn’t think it was preventable.
“I’m not sure that there are any bills in front of us this morning, this session, that could’ve prevented this,” Leach.
He also cosponsored the bill that became the state’s permitless carry law that allows adult Texans to carry handguns in public — openly or concealed.
Jackson said stricter gun laws would help her feel safer.
“One gun law, however many gun laws, is not going to eliminate gun violence,” she said. “But I can say that I believe that it would help stop some of the gun violence.”
Jackson said the threat of gun violence is frightening. She said she has thought about buying a gun and learning how to shoot to protect herself — something Jackson never thought she’d consider.
Danielle Sneed said hypervigilance can be a symptom of trauma. Sneed is the deputy clinical officer at LifePath Systems, the mental health authority for Collin County. She said LifePath Systems set up a call center in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which served around 300 people during the immediate aftermath.
The mental health authority also established The Center for Healing to address the longer-term impact of the event. The center’s services, which focuses on resiliency and trauma recovery, are available to anyone impacted by the tragedy.
Sneed said anyone can be affected by a mass casualty event – not just witnesses.
“I think a lot of times people let things go because I wasn’t there,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody that was there. So therefore, I don’t feel that way or shouldn’t feel that way.”
But Sneed said it will take more than just LifePath’s efforts to help the community heal. She said it needs to be a collective effort.
“It’s just a matter of us coming together as a people like we always did when we were a small town with one railroad track,” Jackson said.