On Thursday, five days after a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle and other weapons opened fire and killed eight people, the Allen Premium Outlets near Dallas remains closed until further notice. The Simon Property Group-owned mall has been turned into a place of memorial and mourning. Three children died; the youngest homicide victim was three years old, the oldest 37, according to the Allen, Texas, police department.
“As a proud member of the Allen community, we continue to grieve for the eight innocent lives lost, their families, those who were injured, and all who are struggling in the face of this tragedy,” reads a black banner on the mall’s website. “As we move forward, the needs of our retailers and our community will guide when and how we reopen the center.”
It was yet another bloody episode at a retail venue that sent shoppers and store employees panicking and left behind casualties and destruction, including numerous fatalities. Gun violence in general is happening more often at stores and shopping centers. When it comes to mass shootings in public like the one in Texas last week, the location itself is the target, experts say.
A mass public shooting is defined by the U.S. Congress as a single incident where four or more victims are murdered with firearms, not including the shooter, in a public location, unconnected to underlying criminal activity or any personal connection or argument.
Retail venues have endured them in every decade of the past 60 years or so, though more than half occurred in the last 15 years, according to the Violence Project, which gathers a variety of statistics on the issue.
In Allen, there were red flags about the gunman, including “neo-Nazi ideation” and the fact that the U.S. Army let him go after basic training, Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Director Hank Sibley told reporters on Tuesday. He obtained his eight weapons legally, had no criminal history and once had a security guard license.
"To me, it looks like he targeted the location rather than a specific group of people," Sibley said. "He was very random in the people he killed, it didn't matter the age, race or sex. He just shot people, which is horrific in itself."
Stores and malls are increasingly the scene of mass shootings.
The frequency of these incidents is accelerating, according to Michael Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven. “By and large, these happen in places where people gather — maybe a hospital, a church, a school, a shopping mall, a bank,” he said by phone.
In a report on security released in September, the National Retail Federation noted that “mass violence/active assailants” is a growing concern of 57.9% of its members, gun violence is a growing concern for 52.6%, and guest-on-associate violence is a growing concern for 77.6%.
“The current climate of active assailants and gun violence add to retailers' concerns about being able to keep employees and customers safe,” the NRF said in the report.
So far, the industry has focused on how to prepare for and respond to such situations, rather than prevent them. It does behoove mall owners to have a well trained security guard or police officer on site, according to Lawlor.
“A good general rule is, you want your staff, especially your security guards, to be trained in recognizing the signs — what we refer to as red flags — and know what options they have available if they see stuff that creates a concern in their mind,” he said. “The shooting in Texas was interrupted by an on-duty police officer who just happened to be in the mall. So it's worth considering having an extra-duty police officer around just in case something does happen. It's not going to prevent it from happening in the first place. But if it does happen there’s at least one person there who could deal with it.”
An NRF spokesperson said it works with law enforcement agencies to educate members and staff on matters like deadly shootings. A spokesperson for the Retail Industry Leaders Association noted by email that retailers conduct regular active-shooter training exercises. “When a horrific event happens, retailers’ first priority is to support the affected community, employees, and law enforcement,” the RILA spokesperson said.
Because each property is unique, the ICSC (formerly known as the International Council of Shopping Centers) doesn’t advise its members on security. But it has worked with Louisiana State University’s Security Programs Institute to train security personnel on active shooter and terrorist situations. The group is also a member of the Loss Prevention Research Council at the University of Florida, which tests safety equipment and provides resources to create safer environments at malls.
“The current climate of active assailants and gun violence add to retailers' concerns about being able to keep employees and customers safe.”
National Retail Federation
Retail Security Survey, 2022
“What happened at the Allen Premium Outlets was a tragedy and our thoughts are with the victims and their families,” an ICSC spokesperson said by email.
However, such actions won’t forestall any loss of life, bodily injury, psychological trauma, decline in business, damage to property or reputation, or legal liabilities that may stem from a mass shooting at a mall or store, according to Jeffrey B. Simon, who teaches mass tort litigation at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. Simon, no relation to Simon Property Group, is also an attorney with Simon Greenstone Panatier in Dallas and author of "Last Rights: The Fight to Save the 7th Amendment."
“Simply having a rapid response team, while important, is not enough,” he said by video conference. “You have to take all reasonable steps for preventive safety of the people that you are inviting to your mall by being open, not to mention the people that work there. That's not to imply that a mall can prevent all gun violence.”
The logistics of running a venue that is open to the public and welcoming to all make a preventative approach to mass shootings difficult for the retail industry. For example, after a few incidents of gun violence including fatalities in recent years, the Mall of America tested but abandoned metal detectors, in part because it has 27 entrances.
But trepidation around the hot-button issue of guns may also be stopping stores and malls from taking practical precautions on their sites or working with elected officials on solutions. According to Lawlor, many, especially in parts of the country where gun enthusiasm is strong, are loath to prohibit firearms on their premises, much less lobby for gun control, for fear of inviting a boycott.
The NRF didn’t address questions about whether it advocates for any changes in gun laws at the local, state or federal levels, except to say that it “is critically important that policymakers at all levels of government prioritize the physical safety of their constituents and the businesses that serve them. NRF will continue to encourage consensus around policies that address immediate needs and demonstrably create long-term solutions.”
“We do not weigh in issues such as gun regulation and we do not keep statistics around crime at centers,” the ICSC said. Like NRF, RILA didn’t address the question.
News reports and statistics compiled elsewhere indicate that the retail industry faces a continually worsening problem. As likely targets, gathering places like malls will continue to face the fallout, at least in the absence of new rules around guns, experts said. For example, the mass shooting in Texas was fairly well contained, yet eight people died, including young children. That kind of incident leaves a mall vulnerable to a host of consequences, including declining traffic from reluctant consumers and even civil liability, according to attorney Simon.
“It should be self evident to anyone that it is not good for business for people to be terrified that they will be mowed down by a military style assault rifle if they choose to go shopping, right? Just like we're supposed to be able to have our kids attend school and we're supposed to be able to go to religious services,” he said. “Malls are in a sense the ultimate secular meeting place where people of every walk of life come to shop and eat and communicate.”
Several rules proposed and enacted in various jurisdictions to help prevent mass shootings, many of which are proving effective, pass muster with the Second Amendment, according to Jeffrey B. Simon. Those include red-flag laws; age restrictions; rules around time, place and manner; bans on large-capacity magazines or ammunition-feeding devices; and background checks. Red flag laws, also known as “extreme risk protection orders,” allow law enforcement to take certain actions, like seizing guns, under certain circumstances, and are on the books in several states. Lawlor authored Connecticut’s red flag law in 1999, when he was a Democratic member of the state legislature.
“The retailer doesn't have special immunity for premises liability by their failure to make their place safer from attack by an incredibly angry or mentally ill person, armed to the teeth with weapons of war. Why should the manufacturer and promoter of those guns have it?”
Jeffrey B. Simon
Attorney and author of “Last Rights: The Fight to Save the 7th Amendment”
The retail industry may also want to consider working to overturn the immunity Congress granted gun makers in 2005, given that retailers and malls themselves can and have been sued by victims of gun violence occurring on their property, said attorney Simon.
“The retailer doesn't have special immunity for premises liability by their failure to make their place safer from attack by an incredibly angry or mentally ill person, armed to the teeth with weapons of war,” he said. “Why should the manufacturer and promoter of those guns have it?”
It’s unclear whether the retail industry is for or against any gun measure that could help impede the next shooting at a store or mall, leaving prevention a mostly political question without a clear answer, Lawlor said.
“At what point does this resistance to reasonable gun rules in many parts of the country end?” he said. “If the shooting stopped tomorrow, then this would no longer be a political topic and no further gun laws would ever be debated or passed. But it's not going to stop tomorrow. It's probably just going to keep getting worse until somebody does something.”