The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As gun violence spreads to small towns, one suburb contends with a mass shooting’s aftermath

An FBI agent enters a Kroger grocery store Sept. 24 in Collierville, Tenn., where a gunman killed one person and wounded 15. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. — Lawanda and Curtis Clark moved here to escape gun violence. They wanted a place where their three children, ages 11, 13 and 16, could play outside without fear, where planting a flower garden wasn’t disrupted by a gang turf battle, where thieves wielding handguns didn’t break into their cars or steal their turkey fryer.

They left Orange Mound, a neighborhood in Memphis and one of the oldest Black communities in the country, three years ago and moved to Collierville.

The suburb, residents say, is a bucolic Southern paradise. It’s a “little big town” 30 minutes east of Memphis near the Mississippi line where everybody knows everybody, or at least their neighbors. Its historic town square features park benches built to look like stagecoach wheels. A historic train is parked on the tracks nearby. Its schools are the envy of the region.

Now it’s the latest small town in America ravaged by gun violence — and the Clarks are steeling themselves for what happens next.

“We’re trying to be more careful,” Lawanda Clark said. “Less relaxed.”

A mass shooting on Thursday at a Kroger supermarket in Collierville, at least the third to happen at a grocery store in recent months, killed one person and wounded more than a dozen. The gunman, identified by police as UK Thang, committed suicide. It comes amid an already terrible year for gun violence nationwide.

A Washington Post analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization, found that gunfire killed more than 8,100 people in the United States in the first five months of this year, about 54 lives lost per day — a rate higher than the average toll during the same period of the previous six years. The number of gunfire deaths has increased in suburban and rural areas, though the overall numbers are lower because of smaller populations.

2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades. So far, 2021 is worse.

Gun violence experts took note of the muted response to the Tennessee attack: The nation relatively ignored a shooting at a grocery store that had the potential to be far worse than it already was. In the case of the Atlanta-area spa shootings and the grocery store attack in Boulder, Colo., this year, lawmakers, advocates and the media sprung into action, writing hundreds of stories, introducing new legislation and reigniting public debate over gun laws.

The Kroger shooting aftermath has had very little of that.

“It felt like this one barely happened or registered for many,” said Jillian Peterson, co-founder of the Violence Project, a research center that studies gun violence. “The fact that this is so routine that it’s not even a major headline, and we don’t even blink an eye when this keeps happening, is heartbreaking.”

‘Everybody deserves love’

Lawanda Clark has worked for Kroger for 17 years but transferred to the supermarket on New Byhalia Road, in the heart of the business district here, in May after an intimidating incident at another store in Memphis. A patron who was trying to sell mix tapes in the aisles menaced her at her cash register, she said, after another customer did not buy his music.

Fending off tears, she told her manager she wanted a transfer and looked for the Kroger in the safest neighborhood she could find, she said.

She found an opening in Collierville, where she’s in charge of making signs for products and promotions and runs a checkout line. Co-workers warned her not to talk to the man behind the sushi counter, UK Thang, who had a reputation for unfriendliness and pulling down his face mask to cough on colleagues he disliked. Clark, 47, tried to subtly warm up to him anyway.

“Everybody deserves love,” she said. “I’m a friendly person, so I’d try to think about how to even say good morning without making him upset.”

Another employee, Jean Kurzawski, 82, who works in the produce section, said she found Thang’s behavior odd but didn’t think of him as violent.

“If he didn’t like anybody, he’d do strange things to them,” she said. “But he never did anything to me. He did beautiful work. My grandson loves the California roll.”

Uptick in gun ownership, pandemic stress

When it comes to gun violence, small towns and suburbs have been home to some of the worst attacks in recent years, especially in schools and public gathering places. Gun violence experts told The Post that increased gun ownership and easier access to firearms in states with Republican governors, specifically in the South, have made smaller populations increasingly bigger targets for massacres.

Workplace shootings like the one that happened in Collierville, in which the shooter also dies by suicide, tend to happen in rural, Southern towns where people have their identities tied to their profession, said Peterson, of the Violence Project.

“When you talk about it in terms of the American Dream, you’re crushed and destroyed if your dream doesn’t happen,” said Peterson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. “Losing a job in a rural community can be really crushing, and there is not a strong social safety net in these small communities.”

The shooting happened after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a measure into law this year allowing most adults to carry handguns without permits. The law, which went into effect over the summer, is being challenged in federal court. At a ceremonial bill signing ceremony in June, Lee celebrated a measure he said was “long overdue in our state,” even as other gun rights groups say the governor could have done more to expand firearms rights in Tennessee.

But Lee, who has given his “full support” to state and local law enforcement as they investigate the shooting, said Friday that there was no connection between the open-carry law and a shooting described by Collierville officials as the “most horrific event” in the small town’s history. The governor emphasized that the open-carry law “applies to law-abiding citizens.”

“What happened … was criminal activity, violent criminal gun activity, and those are separate issues,” he said at a news conference.

But gun violence experts told The Post that the Tennessee law needed to be examined following the Kroger shooting. Jonathan Metzl, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who studies gun violence, said the ongoing stresses of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, on top of people’s personal issues, make shootings in small towns like Tennessee and elsewhere more realistic.

“It’s an incredibly stressful time, but certainly people who are most vulnerable will feel that the most,” Metzl said. “People who have propensity toward violence at a time like this. Combine that with unregulated access to firearms like we have in Tennessee and it’s a toxic mix.”

Sense of safety hangs in balance

On Thursday morning, Thang got into a confrontation with a co-worker who cleaned the store’s floors, coughing and swearing at him, Clark and Kurzawski said. One of the store’s supervisors fired Thang and escorted him out after threatening to call police if he did not leave, they said.

He returned hours later, opening gunfire at around 1:30 p.m., police said, as customers were buying food to prepare for dinner and clerks stocked aisles with cereals and juice. As the shots rang out, workers shepherded customers into freezers and storage areas to hide. Some called loved ones, fearing they were about to be shot. Others prayed in silence.

Officers descended on the supermarket four minutes later, using anti-ballistic gear they’d asked the town to purchase three years earlier, imagining a mass shooting like the ones they’d read about in other suburbs might one day strike their own. The department last trained for an active-shooter scenario June 4, spokesman Maj. David Townsend said.

Inside, officers found Thang dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.

Shopping for dinner, then gunfire: Tenn. supermarket attack upended lives in ‘matter of minutes’

Semon Thang, a family member, declined to comment to The Post on Saturday.

“I do not wish to talk with anyone and I apologize for that,” Thang said in a text message.

To what extent the shooting will upend the sense of safety that drew residents to Collierville — and what might prevent something similar in the future — is now on the minds of everyone here. Many in Collierville have already written the violence off as a freak event, though there is worry it could disrupt the town’s tranquil reputation.

“I’m biased a little bit,” said Jeff Curtis, the town’s school system athletic director, who said he fell in love with the town after taking an unpaid coaching job in 2002. “It’s a great place to live and we’re known for our safe community.”

“If I could live anywhere, I’d still live here,” Kurzawski said.

Peterson said the Violence Project’s research has found that requiring permits to purchase and carry firearms helps in slowing down a process in Southern states where access to guns is generally easier. It remains unclear whether the gunman had a firearm before or after the new law went into effect, what type of weapon he used or how he obtained it.

“Anything we can do to slow down someone from buying a gun and making sure they aren’t in a crisis is better for everyone,” Peterson said. “We can’t directly draw a line and say this Tennessee law caused this shooting to happen, but it’s something we need to take seriously.”

While he was relieved knowing not as many people were killed in Collierville compared to other shootings, Metzl reflected on the larger issue of how individuals have to look over their shoulder in places of gathering, like supermarkets, in fear of a shooting.

“It’s tragic that we measure the seriousness of a mass shooting based on the body count,” he said. “There’s so much gun death broadly and so much pain and suffering from the pandemic that we’re saying, ‘Oh let’s move on.’ For me, that’s a slippery slope for us as a society the moment we start habituating this incredibly, incredibly preventable man-made trauma.”

He added, “It’s a moment we’ve probably already crossed.”

A small town’s new normal

At Friday night’s football game, the school’s team took the field carrying 15 American flags — one for each of the Kroger customers and employees shot — and the chair of the board of education offered a tearful pregame invocation. Clergy from one of the churches set up a tailgating tent outside the stadium with a sign reading “PRAYER” to help counsel students and families.

By halftime, with the Dragons leading their rival Whitehaven High, 14-6, life for a moment appeared to feel normal. The marching band took the field, supported by more than a dozen parents who helped set up percussion instruments and props. The cheerleading team performed, then was mobbed by star-struck children as they left the field. Teachers and parents mingled. Dads chattered about the Dragons’ impressive linebackers.

But it was not normal, at least not here, even as America’s gun epidemic strengthens its chokehold on small towns. Fans left the stadium past a “#COLLIERVILLESTRONG” display, with each letter on a different sparkly lawn sign. A local company had already printed out maroon T-shirts with the same slogan printed below a white ribbon.

“It was always in the back of my mind all night,” Curtis said. “It didn’t go away. I wish it did.”