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 declined.
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 history.
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 increase.
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.
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