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Stray bullets spark urgent gun control conversation in North Texas

This story on this North Texas county's gun control fight amid sporadic gunfire in the neighborhood originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Local Profile . Every morning, Rachel gets up and prays "Lord, don't let me get shot today.
Shooting in a Collin County neighborhood sparks gun control conversation. | Shutterstock

This story on this North Texas county's gun control fight amid sporadic gunfire in the neighborhood originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Local Profile.

Every morning, Rachel gets up and prays "Lord, don't let me get shot today."

She's been living on the outskirts of Farmersville for 23 years now. She, like many of her neighbors, had traded in the fast pace of Dallas city life for peaceful country living in northeastern Collin County.

The woodland surrounding them was full of trees dating back to the 1700s -- oak, pecan, and sycamore trees growing along the river bottoms and along the floodplain, untouched by future development.

A mostly peaceful area -- where God, family, and guns often go hand-in-hand -- it gained some notoriety when in the late '60s when police arrested Farmersville High School graduate Charles "Tex" Watson for the murder of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and six other people.

Rachel's husband had been hunting in the area for years before they bought some land and moved into a manufactured home. There wasn't much here, Rachel says, when they first moved in.

All that changed about eight years ago. Islands of cookie-cutter homes began appearing on the horizon, dumping city folk into extraterritorial jurisdictions by the dozens. Gunshots, which have always been a part of country living, were becoming more frequent -- and bullets were flying closer.

Over the years, it wasn't unusual for Rachel to hear about one of their neighbors complaining about bullets whizzing past their heads and across property lines. A neighbor's nephew had been grazed by a .22 bullet.

"They turn into Matt Dillon when they get out here," Rachel says. "If it's a nice day, and the sun is out, you can hear shooting coming from five or six different directions. It's the entire county. I don't know if it's possible to enforce [gun regulations] in the area, but people are building, and everybody wants to go to the country, and then get out here and think it's the Wild West."

She calls them "the new Modern Day Cowboy," but they sound like urban cowboys, who either don't care or simply don't realize how far a bullet travels (around 1.5 miles if fired from a .22)

Rachel is all too familiar how far one travels. It sounded like a car had hit her house when a stray bullet from a nearby property had struck her home at dusk on a Sunday around this time last year. It pierced the wall in the front guest bedroom, soared across the room into another wall and exited through the side of the house.

Not one to wait around, Rachel jumped into her car and drove around until she found who was shooting. She says she called the Collin County Sheriff's Office, and deputy came out to talk to the alleged culprits. She says that they told her it was the property owner's grandsons who were out back shooting their guns.

"'They are very nice people,'" she recalls the deputy telling her, "'You should introduce yourself.'"

"I back the blue 100 percent," Rachel goes on, "I'm not out to bash the sheriff's department. I know that they've got a lot on their plate, but I don't think it is being handled properly."

She isn't along in her complaint. Several of her neighbors have been calling 911 over the past year to report negligent shoot from a couple of different properties. Many of them have come forward on the condition we protect their names because they fear retaliation.

All of them shared a similar statement about "backing the blue," when contacted about this issue. They've rallied together under their neighbor, Mr. Richard Hill, a retired Dallas businessman and former precinct chair of the GOP in Dallas County, who has taken it upon himself to bring their concerns not only to Sheriff Jim Skinner, but also to the Collin County commissioners, Collin County Judge Chris Hill, and State Rep. Justin Holland.

Richard Hill: the Farmersville resident fronting the gun control fight after seeing one too many bullets fly through his neighborhood.
Richard Hill: the Farmersville resident fronting the gun control fight after seeing one too many bullets fly through his neighborhood.

Two days before the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, Richard appeared during the public comment section of the weekly commissioners court meeting to discuss what he calls negligent shooting and his four-month interaction with the sheriff's office. He was desperate to raise awareness, and reminded commissioners about county ordinance 2005-388-0524, which basically states that you can't discharge a firearm is you live on 10 acres or less in a subdivision in all or part of the unincorporated area of Collin County.

"However, in talking to numerous deputies -- I've probably spoken with at least 12 in the last year -- there is a very inconsistent opinion about how this can be adjudicated," Richard said. "Some deputies will tell me, 'Well, if they are doing it safely, we're not too concerned.' Or 'if their property is less than 10 acres and joins another property, they can shoot as long as they don't shoot over the property line.'"

Of course, it's also a far more complicated issue than Richard mentioned during his Jan. 4 public comment. It's also an issue that Republicans aren't fond of tackling. In Republican-controlled Texas, conservative politicians aren't known for campaigning on gun control, especially in the rural areas of Collin County. If anything, they've made it easier to gain access to a firearm in time when other states had been implementing stricter regulations, in part, due to the increase of mass shootings over the years.

"The problem is many landowners do not know what the law is," Richard told commissioners in early January. "And the argument that there is no excuse for not knowing the law does not work in this situation." Especially with the bullets flying all around, as Richard described.

"People have to know," he added.

The Tragedy

Sitting in a recliner, Richard's neighbor was watching TV in the living room when a bullet struck his house. It was late afternoon, a couple of weeks before the Nov. 6 election, and close to a year since another bullet struck his neighbor Rachel's home.

On this early Wednesday evening, he had heard the gunshot, followed by something coming through the wall near the window frame not far from where he was sitting. He thought it was a strange sound, and then noticed something small and metallic hit the floor between the fireplace and coffee table.

It was a bullet, probably from a 9mm Luger, according to the Nov. 2 deputy report.

"Shooting into my house," says Richard's neighbor, who is in his 80s and didn't want to be identified in this article. He stops to gather his thoughts. "I don't like that."

Shooting in a Collin County neighborhood sparks gun control conversation.
Shooting in a Collin County neighborhood sparks gun control conversation.

He didn't immediately call 911. Instead, he walked over to the living room window and looked outside. He later told the deputy that he saw some neighbors firing a gun across the street. He went outside and spoke with some other neighbors who had heard the gunshots and inspected the bullet hole in the exterior wall of his home.

He noticed that the bullet had pierced through a 2x4 stud in the wall. The thick stud must have slowed the bullet down because he says when it finally made it through the wall, the bullet fell and hit the floor and rolled between the fireplace and coffee table.

From the angle of its trajectory, he says he figured that the bullet had come from his neighbors across the street. They'd been known to shoot their guns on a fairly regular basis, according to Richard's January testimony to Collin county commissioners.

Richard's neighbor had been hearing gunshots since he moved from Houston to Collin County about five years ago. After retiring from the business world, he built his home on his daughter and son-in-law's property on the outskirts of Farmersville. Like Rachel, he knew that hearing gunshots was no different than meeting for a family gathering after church.

In fact, Sheriff Skinner and Richard both agree that it isn't unusual to step outside on the weekend in this part of the county and here someone shooting a gun. Responsible gun owners have been living in these parts for generations. They grew up with guns in the home and usually received their first gun when they were 12 years old, according to the Pew Research Center.

In a June 22, 2017 report, researchers pointed out that as a nation, the U.S. has a deep connection to guns, integrated into the fabric of our society. It's a point of pride and central to their sense of freedom. Researchers set out to understand our relationship to guns and found that at least two-thirds of people have lived in a household with a gun. Roughly 7 in 10 people have fired one at some point in their lives. Most people own a gun -- 3 in 10 adults -- and 36 percent of those who don't told researchers they might be open to buying one in the future.

If you haven't been to a gun shop in North Texas recently, it's easy to speculate that the 36 percent have held true to their thoughts and bought a gun. After the protests, the government shutdown, and the Capitol siege, it's nearly impossible to find affordable ammo.

Richard's neighbor and other nearby residents aren't worried about responsible gun owners, they say. Like Rachel, they're worried about the "Matt Dillon" -type, as Rachel described them. They're not alone.

About 44% of U.S. adults told Pew researchers that they know someone who has been shot -- whether accidentally or intentionally -- and 23% claim either they or someone they knew had been threatened by someone with a gun.

Gun violence was a hot issue prior to COVID-19 and Trump's re-election campaign.

Richard's neighbor called the sheriff's office a few days after the bullet came through his home and landed on his living room floor. He handed the sheriff's deputy the bullet in an envelope.

In the Nov. 2 sheriff report on deadly conduct, the deputy wrote that Richard's neighbor was very apprehensive to pursue charges, but he did state that he wishes to have the matter investigated."

And by the deputy's account in the Nov. 2 report, they did investigate it. H spoke with Richard's neighbor about the incident. He reported taking 78 digital photographs of the crime scene and evidence, picking up the bullet in the envelope, and transferring it to a forensic officer.

In the report, he wrote, "I observed the bullet hole in the window frame to be angled toward the house across the street."

But, as Richard pointed out on several occasions, nothing has been resolved in the case. There also seems to be some confusion. In the sheriff's report, the deputy wrote that Richard's neighbor was reluctant to press charges, but Richard, who was with him at the time of the report, claims that he convinced his neighbor to press charges before he left him with the deputy. He says his neighbor doesn't want them shooting at his home but did want them to cover the repair bills.

Richard's neighbor isn't sure what is happening with the investigation. "They look at the bullet hole and show no action at all," he says. "I don't know. Something is strange about it."

Shooting in a Collin County neighborhood sparks gun control conversation.
Richard Hill at his home in Farmersville.

Man on a Mission

Richard calls himself a "man on a mission." He told Sheriff Skinner that he, according to the sheriff, was someone who knew "how to paper people" if they didn't resolve this issue in a way that he thought they should.

"You are going to do something, or Skinner's life is going to be miserable," Richard recalls telling the sheriff's office spokesperson Sgt. Jessica Pond.

HE's definitely someone who knows how to research. He's an old school sleuth who's adept at digging up information. Since he got involved in September, he has dug up records on the offending properties, discovering who lives there and who's leasing the property to them.

He says he's considering reaching out to one of the property owners' leasing company and alerting them to the fact that they may have violated their contract. He has even suggested that county officials should declare the property owners a nuisance and "evict them from the property an take it over."

To say he is upset would be an understatement. It's easy to understand why. According to Richard, about five or six of the 44 properties in the area are shooting frequently at all hours of the night. Neighbors around them have had bullets whizzing past them. Several homes, he says, have been hit. Two properties have been the subject of repeated 911 calls, as he pointed out in his three-page chronology of events.

"I get the feeling that the deputy sheriffs out here just want to be nice guys," he says. "I've knocked on a lot of [neighbors'] doors and been told 'I won't drive down your direction because I'm afraid to get shot.' ... I'm on a mission for better or worse."

Richard's mission began in late September. He'd been living on his property since 2016, though he's owned it since the early '80s, and had heard gunshots before but not at all hours of the night. He called 911 and asked if the dispatcher could send deputies. The dispatcher, he says, told him that it would be some time before the deputies could come since other matters were occupying them at the moment.

Two days later, he contacted Collin County Commissioner Darrell Hale to discuss if shooting on 10 acres or less that has been platted was illegal. He says he was told that he should call 911.

Instead, he called Sgt. Jessica Pond, the community relations officer at the sheriff's office. She reviewed her notes and said nothing was done to his neighbors since they lived on 20 acres and, according to the state law, were allowed to shoot.

"I asked what about shooting at midnight and disturbing the peace," he wrote in his chronology. " She said they could shoot. I asked if it would be all right if I shot from 3 a.m. to sunrise. She said 'I'd rather you not.'"

When he found out about his neighbor's house being shot in early November, Richard contacted Sgt. Pond and asked if the investigators were going to come out and investigate the shooting. He recalls her telling him, "Richard, you know they cannot determine the origin of the bullet when it goes through a window."

Richard explained that her statement was not accurate since the bullet didn't go through the window but actually blew through the 2x4 stud in the wall.

"I told her that Sheriff Skinner was not going to like what I write in my letter," he wrote in his chronology of events. "She said a captain would call. To date, Nov. 11, no one has called."

The sheriff's office did send out another deputy to investigate on Nov. 2. He took 78 photographs and, according to the sheriff report, was able to determine where the bullet came from. But no charges were filed, so the case was ruled "unfounded," in part because Richard's neighbor was reluctant to press charges, Pond says.

A few days later, another nearby property owner was allegedly shooting tracers that passed over the residence of Richard's other neighbors. They called 911, and he assumes deputies were sent out to investigate.

On Nov. 11, Richard met with several neighbors to discuss the bullets flying too close for comfort. He gave them handouts and deed restrictions on one of the alleged offenders properties. He told neighbors that they needed pictures of everything and asked them to obtain record of their 911 calls to the sheriff's office. He encouraged them to call 911 "every time they shoot after dark and say you are in danger."

He also provided them with a handout that offered suggested action:

  • When you hear gunshots call 911. Every time.
  • When asked if you are in fear of danger, respond yes. Advise four homes have been damaged by gunfire and one person has been shot in the hand.
  • Four homes have had bullets pass over, endangering people and property.
  • Video any evidence such as tracers going overhead.
  • Record the gunfire on your phone.
  • Call Sgt. Pond and Commissioner Hale complaining of little to no law enforcement by the Sheriff's Office.

j The list goes on with suggestions to write a letter to the sheriff and the commissioner as well as one to the editor of a local newspaper.

Richard also asked his neighbors to get with him if they want to contact an investment company to try to get the alleged major offender evicted.

Since Nov. 9, Richard has written several letters to local and state officials. He mentioned the one incident involving his neighbor's house in late October, another involving a different home from 2019, and two events that happened several years ago and didn't relate to the current offenders: one involving a slug that went through a living room window, and another involving a teenager who had been "shot in the wrist some years ago by a firearm discharge from afar." The neighbor's son was treated at the hospital for a minor injury and released.

The sheriff's office investigated the shooting, ruled that it was an accidental shooting and closed the case.

Richard requested that State Rep. Justin Holland consider changing state law to keep people on property of 10 acres or less from shooting their guns, and not just the ones that live on 10 acres or less that have been platted for a subdivision. Some political experts would consider it a death sentence for Holland's political career.

Richard lambasted the sheriff's office for their unwillingness to do anything even though deputies had been responding to the 911 calls, speaking with him by phone to address his concern, and investigating the shooting.

According to the sheriff's office, deputies have been sent out in response to Richard's neighbors shooting their guns on several dates: September 13 and 26, October 28, November 7, and December 31. The latter two dates involved two properties, one 20-acres and one 10-acres on platted land. Both were given stern warnings about what would happen if deputies returned.

"Sheriff Skinner, the law is clear," Richard wrote in his Nov. 18 letter to Sheriff Skinner. "I feel that some of your deputies are hesitant to issue citations because they empathize with people's rights to own guns and shoot. Unfortunately, complacency and the lack of strict enforcement by your department will lead to someone suffering a fatal injury. You would not tolerate indiscriminate shooting in your neighborhood. You would take immediate action if three or more homes close to you were shot."

Shooting in a Collin County neighborhood sparks gun control conversation.
Sheriff Jim Skinner.

Not So-Lone Wolf Sheriff

Sheriff Skinner tolerates quite a bit of shooting around his 10+acre property in rural Collin County. He's building a "forever home" for his wife on their property.

A boy who grew up on a farm, he's quite familiar with country folk hunting and target-practicing on their land. "When me neighbors do so, I just expect them to do so safely, mindful of where their shots may land," he says.

He understands Richard and his neighbors' frustrations. They aren't the only ones who are frustrated by the shooting that occurs in the country. With the explosive growth affecting the rural areas, Skinner says they "get a lot of gun complaints and calls about people shooting." He points out that they have tried to explain the gun laws to Richard on multiple occasions, spending several hours doing so over the past few months. He says even the game warden has tried to explain it to him.

In fact, according to Richard's own admission, law enforcement officials have given him and his neighbors advice on how to handle the situation from installing game cameras to filing an injunction with a judge in civil court.

But it wasn't enough for Richard, who showed up a week later at commissioners court to voice his complaints during the public comment period.

"Sheriff Skinner, much more needs to be done," he wrote in his Nov. 9 letter to the sheriff. "Without aggressive enforcement of the law, people will die, homes will be damaged, and my neighbors, my family and I will continue to live in fear."

According to the sheriff's office, there are only two properties that they have received 911 calls about this issue: one has 10 acres and the other has 20 acres. With the 10-acre property, Richard has pointed out that the property is platted for a subdivision, so under the 2005 county ordinance, he says they wouldn't be able to shoot their guns.

The 20 acres property owner, however doesn't fall under that restriction, which means they can shoot their guns as long as long as they aren't harming people and are "mindful of where their shots may land."

On New Year's Day, Richard called about the 10-acre property after he claimed he heard multiple gunshots. A deputy came out and spoke with the property owner about it. A day before they arrived, five deputies showed up on the 20-acre property after Richard and his neighbors called 911 to complain about people on the property shooting their guns in the air. One of Richard's neighbors caught it on video.

According to Richard's chronology, the deputies reviewed the footage and told the property owner that they were considering filing charges for deadly conduct and that if they were called out again, they would cite the property owners.

"Richard makes a lot of allegations about these things," Skinner says, "at the end of the day, we thought we did our best [to handle it]. The reality is that he's not happy with his neighbors. He complained that Mexicans were having a party and shooting firearms."

Richard's complaint may not be too far from the truth. Our Southern brothers and sisters across the border have been known to celebrate the ringing of the New Year with guns ablazin'. In Mexico City, there are several campaigns trying to raise awareness about the dangers of firing guns into the air to ring in the New Year, according to a Jan. 2020 Mexico Daily report. The newspaper reported that one person was killed and 19 were wounded after bullets fell like rain.

"Your bullet didn't go to the stars, your bullet fell on my wife's finger," one victim's husband told the newspaper. "You ruined our New Year, while you continue to have fun and feel like a hotshot and a thug for firing bullets into the air. May God forgive you."

It's a situation that Richard and his neighbors are trying to avoid. Yet, the sheriff's and his deputies' "cavalier and inconsistent interpretation and enforcement" isn't assuring them. Richard describes their attitudes as if they're saying "Well, what do you expect when you move to the country?"

He also doesn't understand why the sheriff won't simply draft up an ordinance notice -- with the penalties for violating it -- on official stationery from the sheriff's office and post it on the front door or front gate of each residence under 10 acres in the county. He suggested it in his letters and mentioned it again to commissioners in January.

"I'm not going to post notices on law abiding citizens' homes," Skinner says. "I'm not going to do that and interject myself. We are not going to tell people what to do unless they commit a crime. My deputies are only going to do what is within the confines of the law and not going to go threatening people. Not going to happen."

Final Countdown

Rachel has no choice, it seems, but to tolerate the gunshots. She recalls the game warden telling her that it was a "culture thing" for her neighbors; if they have a birthday, they celebrate -- with guns.

She, like many of her neighbors, would hear them celebrating with music during the day on Saturday and gunfire late on a Saturday night when the weather was nice.

One of her neighbors was on the phone with her son during one of these celebrations and heard what sounded like machine gun fire. Like Rachel, Richard and several other neighbors, they're a Second Amendment family with sons who've been known to shoot skeet on their property.

"We are used to gunshots but hearing that... it was frequent and loud and very concerning," she said in a recent phone call. "We went out to our side porch and saw red tracers shooting across our property behind the house. Our home is situated right in the middle of the property."

"It sounded like rapid fire," Rachel says. "[It was] nerve-wracking."

Her neighbor's home wasn't hit, so they weren't saddled with a repair bill. Rachel and Richard's neighbor, on the other hand, didn't have much choice but to pay out of pocket for to repair the bullet holes in their walls. Only warnings were given to the suspected offenders. No one was charged with deadly conduct or negligence, so there was no one to hold accountable for the repairs. They hired contractors to repair it properly. Both are thankful that they didn't have to face hospital bills or, God forbid, a funeral director.

Since the sheriff's deputies showed up to speak with their neighbors in late December, the late night shooting has calmed down for the time being. Yet if it's a nice day, Rachel can still hear shooting from five or six different directions.

"I can be sitting on the porch reading and if I hear a lot of gunfire, I'll go into the house," she says. "I'm paranoid to be out there. It comes from all directions. It's the entire county, and I understand. I don't know if it is possible to enforce [the 10-acre platted rule] in this area, but people are building, and everybody wants to go to the country, and then get out here and think it's the Wild West."

Want more local longform? Read about this Little Elm family's story of dealing with domestic violence -- and a gunshot that changed their lives forever.