December 2012, Week 3


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Tue, 18 Dec 2012 21:04:43 -0500
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How Walmart Helped Make Newtown Shooter's AR-15 the Most
Popular Assault Weapon in America

by George Zornick

December 17, 2012
The Nation.com


When Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on
Friday, December 14, inexplicably bent on ending as many lives
as possible, he was carrying a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle
and several high-capacity magazines. Sadly, this isn't the
first time the country has had to deal with the aftermath of a
horrific shooting spree, nor is it the first time we've
encountered an AR-15 in this context: only days earlier, it
was the weapon of choice for a shooting at an Oregon mall that
killed two people. Five months earlier, it was used by James
Holmes in an attack that wounded fifty-eight people and killed
twelve in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. And several
years before that, a man and his teenage accomplice used a
Bushmaster AR-15 to terrorize the Washington, DC, area with a
series of random shootings.

Although it is not yet clear where the Bushmaster AR-15 used
by Lanza (and registered to his mother) was purchased, the
model is familiar to many Walmart shoppers. It's on sale at
about 1,700 Walmart stores nationwide, though the retail chain
pulled the weapon from its website early this afternoon. While
last week's deadly rampage in Connecticut has finally and
unmistakably highlighted the madness of making these weapons
so readily available, it's a concern many people with a
Walmart in their community have been trying to address for
much longer.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Greg Brown had a troubling
conversation with two members of his youth group from the
northwest side of South Bend, Indiana. "They were honor roll
students and little young folks that love the Lord," Brown
recounted. "One of the kids came up to me and said, `Rev, you
ain't gonna believe what happened the other day at Walmart.'"
The kids went on to describe how, on a recent visit to the
big-box store, a man asked them to fill up a gym bag with
ammunition and sneak it out of the store for him. ?They

Walmart's ammunition sales have troubled Brown since at least
2009, when two teenagers shoplifted bullets from the local
Walmart, shot at an employee who tried to stop them in the
parking lot, and then embarked on a citywide robbery spree in
which one man was seriously injured. When Brown headed down to
the store to see how easy it would be to steal ammunition, he
was shocked. Not only were there bullets arrayed on the
unlocked shelves; there were rows of guns as well, including
assault rifles.

South Bend has the most violent crime per capita in Indiana
and well more than double the national median. Brown was
outraged that Walmart was even selling these weapons, let
alone that they were unlocked and under the supervision of
hourly employees without specific training in firearm handling
and sales. (Brown says a former Marine handles the gun sales
at a nearby Dick's Sporting Goods.) "It's totally wrong, and
it's totally unacceptable," he said. "You look back there and
see a dad holding a gun, his son pulling on his pocket. And
the son knows the gun is going home. The son's going to know
where the gun is."

South Bend isn't the only place where Walmart is stocking
guns, including tactical or combat-style weapons and gun-
related paraphernalia. The big-box chain at one point sold
guns in only about a third of its stores, mainly in remote
rural areas where hunting is popular. But in 2011, without
much fanfare, Walmart expanded gun sales to half of its 3,982
stores nationwide, including those in more urban areas like
Albuquerque and Spokane.

The expansion of gun sales at Walmart came after a five-year
slowdown. In 2006, the chain announced that it was rolling gun
sales back, citing declining profit margins on the relatively
expensive weapons, which even at Walmart can retail for
hundreds of dollars. But in 2011, company executives were
looking at eight straight quarters of declining sales at
stores open for a year or more - the worst slump in Walmart's

They must also have noticed that Barack Obama's inauguration
had sparked a rally in gun sales, which have steadily
increased every year since 2008. The government isn't allowed
to track firearm sales, but the FBI does release figures on
how many retailers ask it to run background checks - a
relatively reliable indicator of total gun sales, although
likely a lowball estimate, since a person can buy multiple
guns on a single background check, and many gun shows aren't
required to perform such checks. In 2007, retailers asked the
FBI for just over 11 million background checks; by the end of
2009, ?14 million checks were requested - a 27 per-?cent

In April 2011, Walmart began stocking guns in more and more
stores, expanding the sales to 1,750 outlets nationwide. By
the end of that year, the FBI received 16.4 million background
check requests; the number is 16.8 million this year. Overall
Walmart sales figures are back on track after the 2011 slump,
and executive vice president Duncan Mac Naughton told
shareholders at a meeting in October 2012 that gun sales in
particular are a staple of the chain's strategy to continue
boosting its numbers. He said that over the past twenty-six
months, gun sales at Walmart stores open for a year or more
were up an astonishing 76 percent, while ammunition sales were
up 30 percent. Walmart is now the biggest seller of firearms
and ammunition in America.

"This gun thing, it's really just a nightmare," says Bertha
Lewis, president of the Black Institute, which has been
organizing Walmart workers this year to protest wages and
working conditions. Given its aggressive gun sales, Walmart's
logo "shouldn't be a smiley face; it should be an automatic
weapon," she adds.

Nearly 400 guns are available in Walmart's catalog. And even
if your local store doesn't sell a particular model, you can
special-order it (assuming you pay half the cost ahead of
time). With the exception of its stores in Alaska, Walmart
doesn't sell handguns, though it does sell ammunition for
them, along with a wide variety of semiautomatic long-barrel
weapons. For example, at half the Walmarts in America, you can
buy a semiautomatic Colt M4 OPS .22 rifle; it carries a
thirty-round magazine, which you can also purchase in the
store. Or perhaps a Sig Sauer M400 semiautomatic assault
rifle, advertised on Walmart's website as "designed for use in
law enforcement, military operations...as well as competitive
shooting," which is just one of several AR-15 assault rifles
for sale.

In keeping with the store's pitch as a one-stop destination
for shoppers, with everything from gas to groceries, gun
enthusiasts can also obtain a wide range of gun accessories -
including the 360 types of ammunition listed on Walmart's
website. You can buy a 555-pack of Winchester hollow-point
bullets, which the website advertises as "great for plinking
and varmints," but which would cause extensive damage should
they enter a human body and expand, as they are designed to
do. There are full clips of ammunition for assault rifles,
including "quiet ammo" that makes only a quarter of the noise
of regular bullets. Laser-pointing sights for handguns are
also available, as are belts for holding shotgun shells (only
$4.97 at select stores).

Walmart, which declined to comment for this story, has said
elsewhere that its stores will always respect local laws and
ordinances on gun sales. But in 2005, Walmart was busted by
Bill Lockyer, then the California attorney general, for
thousands of state gun law violations - including selling to
people that the AG's office had notified Walmart were
prohibited from owning firearms; delivering guns to customers
before they passed a background check; and sometimes failing
even to ascertain a customer's identity. The company settled
the suit for $14.5 million.

And, of course, Walmart has contributed to efforts to change
state gun laws and make the possession and use of firearms
even easier. It was one of the key backers of the American
Legislative Exchange Council when the group aggressively
pushed "stand your ground" laws in states across the country.
(Walmart has since dropped out of ALEC under public pressure.)

In 2008, the store reached an agreement with Mayors Against
Illegal Guns to adopt tough new standards for sales above the
federal requirements for gun retailers. But even if every
regulation is adhered to, the mass sale of weapons and
ammunition will undoubtedly contribute to this country's
horrifying gun violence problem.

In fact, Walmart is increasingly popping up in court
documents. In 2011, on the morning that he killed six people,
including a federal judge, and injured thirteen others,
including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Lee
Loughner went to two Walmarts in Tucson in search of
ammunition. He was turned away at one store for "strange
behavior," according to police, but got what he was looking
for at the next Walmart. ("We share in the sadness for those
people whose lives were ended too soon," the store said in a
statement at the time.)

In November, a disturbed 20-year-old in Missouri was arrested
for planning mass shootings at a screening of the new Twilight
movie and at the local Walmart - the latter because he could
reload there. "He decided that he would go and shoot people at
Walmart in Bolivar," according to the court documents. "He
would walk into the store and just start shooting people at
random and if he ran out of ammunition...he would just break
the glass where the ammunition is being stored and get some
more and keep on shooting until police arrived."

Local news reports are rife with stories of gun thefts at
Walmart stores, often apparently because of lax oversight of
the weapons inventory. In October, a man and a woman cracked
open a display case at a Walmart store in Tyler, Texas, "while
a clerk wasn't looking," according to local reports, and stole
four assault rifles. The two have yet to be apprehended.

A week earlier, at a Walmart in Missoula County, Montana, a
clerk was showing a Sig Sauer semiautomatic rifle to a man who
then "grabbed it and ran for the store's entrance," according
to the charging documents. The police nabbed him a short time
later, after he had tossed the AR-15 from his car. In early
November, police in Summerville, South Carolina, were on the
lookout for suspects in incidents at two separate Walmarts,
where display cases had been smashed with a hammer and the
AR-15s and other assault rifles inside them stolen. And these
are just a few of the incidents involving guns or ammunition
at Walmart in the past two months. Since the start of 2012,
there have been at least fifty shootings in a Walmart store or
parking lot, incidents tracked on a blog called Walmart
Shootings (walmartshootings.blogspot.com).

The possibility that South Bend could end up on that list once
again is what has Reverend Brown so alarmed. For forty-eight
years, he has lived with his mother, Bertha, a retired
schoolteacher, in a house less than a mile from a Walmart. The
neighborhood is a rough one, and he's seen it get worse; Brown
said that the locals sometimes call it Babylon, "because ain't
nothing righteous."

Bertha, who has lived in South Bend for sixty-five years, says
the violence is the worst she's ever seen. "It's real sad,
because we've got a lot of young people, and people are
getting killed - every time you look, someone is getting
shot," she says. "Every time you pick up the paper.... I don't
know who's doing it, and they can't seem to catch these
people, but the guns are out there."

For four months last summer, Reverend Brown's prayer group,
nicknamed the God Squad, walked around town sticking three
strips of tape (symbolizing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit)
with anti-violence messages onto telephone polls. The group
was "praying that we could cease the violence, cease the
drama. And it worked in some areas," Brown said. "But I'm
going to be honest with you: we're at an all-time high."

So when he saw the weapons for sale at Walmart, Brown took
action. He called the chief of police and members of the City
Council, who in turn applied pressure on local Walmart
managers. In response, the chain promised the city in writing,
in June, that it would no longer sell tactical weapons in
South Bend.

Brown thought the problem was solved. Then, this fall, his
phone rang: "I had a parent call me and say, `Mr. Brown,
they're selling them.'" He went back to Walmart, and indeed,
the weapons were still on display - without much in the way of
security. "I saw the glass unsecured," Brown said. "The
employee who worked there said, `I only work part-time back
here.' He opened the glass.... This guy left the cabinet open
and walked away."

This time, Brown came prepared: he'd brought a police officer
and a reporter for the local ABC station with him. They took
pictures, and the reporter did a story that made waves in
South Bend. Walmart apologized and promised to fix the error.

A month later, Brown said he'd heard from a police officer
that the combat-style weapons were being sold inside the
packed store on Black Friday. He said he'll keep up the fight
and plans to visit the City Council again to ask for tougher
action. "I'm not against guns; I'm not trying to go against
the NRA," Brown said. "But I'm against the way they sell them.
You can go in Walmart at 3:30 in the morning and you can't buy
a can of beer. But you can walk in there to the ammunition
[counter] and buy as many boxes as you want. I have a problem
with that."

Other anti-violence activists are disturbed by Walmart's much-
ballyhooed expansion into urban markets like Chicago,
Washington, Los Angeles, Reno, Detroit and other cities. That,
combined with the increased gun sales, could be a recipe for

The chain says it won't sell guns at those stores - a
condition of approval for a new Walmart in Washington, DC -
but Bertha Lewis is wary. Even if that turns out to be true,
the guns are likely to be sold at a Walmart somewhere else in
the area. "Guns are a scourge in black and brown and low- and
moderate-income communities," Lewis says. "And here comes
Walmart with Mr. Smiley Face: `Here, here's a $5 sweater -
and, oh, by the way, you can get this gun.'"

Lewis thinks the gun sales will soon be a new front in the
activist campaign against Walmart. "you're going to see it
more and more and more as folks organize against Walmart," she
says. "One of their vulnerabilities is their stance on guns.
don't try to sell me an apple and a gun at the same ?time.
don't tell me that you're trying to give fresh fruit and
vegetables to people so that they can have a healthy life, and
then you turn around and on the next counter you have
instruments of death."


Walmart has become the top seller of firearms and ammunition
nationwide. Here are five assault rifles you can pick up with
your groceries.

[George grew up in Buffalo, NY and holds a B.A. in English
from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to
joining The Nation, George was Senior Reporter/Blogger for
ThinkProgress.org. He worked as a researcher for Michael
Moore's SiCKO and as an Associate Producer on "The Media
Project" on the Independent Film Channel. His work has been
published in The Los Angeles Times, Media Matters, and The
Buffalo News.]



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