By Al Norman
Wal-Mart has often found itself on the wrong end of a gun.
The company sells more firearms than any retailer on the planet, but this week Wal-Mart took aim at its own lax guns sales policies---and hit the target with some powerful potential political allies.
Wal-Mart told the media that it has joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in an initiative called The Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership. Wal-Mart pledged to implement new gun sale rules at less than one-third of its American stores. The retailer said it will create a new record and taping system for guns that are subsequently used to commit a crime. If the gun purchaser returns to Wal-Mart to buy another firearm, the system would warn the clerk not to make the sale. The system would also allow the police to view the tapes as part of a crime investigation. Wal-Mart said it would also institute tougher background checks for its "associates" who work in the firearms department. Wal-Mart admitted that the new policies would cost the company money. "The costs are, we think, part of what it takes to be responsible. Everything is not pain-free," the company's spokesman told the Associated Press.
Wal-Mart has had its own troubled history with guns. For example, in January of 2005, an investigation by the California Attorney General's office revealed that Wal-Mart allegedly violated the state's gun laws 2,891 times over a three year period. Wal-Mart illegally sold a gun to someone in California 2.6 times everyday from 2000 to 2003. The violations included selling to 23 people prohibited from owning guns, selling guns before waiting for a criminal background check, failing to identify the buyer's identity, and allowing people to make "straw purchases" on behalf of another person prohibited from owning guns. Wal-Mart violations of gun laws were so bad, the state--at taxpayer expense--set up a special training program for Wal-Mart workers to get them to follow state law. Apparently that training misfired. State agents found so many violations at numerous stores, that Wal-Mart eventually decided to stop selling guns in California. There are only two other states where Wal-Mart doesn't sell guns--New Jersey and Hawaii. Under the terms of the settlement with the California Attorney General, Wal-Mart paid $14.5 million to the state, and spent at least $4.5 million to comply with state and federal regulations, plus $3 million for a public relations campaign promoting firearm safety and to encourage other gun dealers to do what Wal-Mart failed to do: check the ages of people buying guns. The California AG said that compliance with the laws was necessary to keep "ex-felons, mentally ill and other prohibited people" from getting weapons.
If this California lawsuit is any indicator, similar violations could be happening all across the nation at thousands of Wal-Mart stores, and people who are not supposed to be buying guns, are walking out of superstores armed with Wal-Mart guns.
The National Rifle Association took immediate aim at the new Wal-Mart policy. The group's CEO called Wal-Mart's move "a public relations stunt". "I honestly think it's a corporation trying to curry favor with politicians as opposed to doing anything meaningful about stopping crime," said Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.
And he's probably right. Wal-Mart, after all, needs Michael Bloomberg strongly on their side if they are to have any hope of breaking into the Manhattan market. The retailer's efforts to site a store in Manhattan have been shot down.
"We didn't pressure them," Mayor Bloomberg told the media, " they're doing it because they think it's the responsible thing to do." No, they did it to declare a cease fire with the Founders of Mayors Against Illegal Guns---Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Tom Menino---the latter an outspoken critic of Wal-Mart who kept them out of Downtown Crossing.
Wal-Mart assured the NRA that it is not getting out of the lucrative business of selling guns. That includes selling guns to people who should not own them. Like every decision at Wal-Mart, the only behavior that is responsible is behavior that swells the bottom line. On that subject, Wal-Mart has deadly aim.
Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and the author of the book The Case Against Wal-Mart.