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Wal-Mart Tightens Gun Policy

Business: The retailer exceeds federal rules on buyer background checks, provoking opposition from the NRA and other groups.

July 03, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest seller of guns, has quietly ordered its stores to adopt a tougher policy on gun sales that goes beyond the requirements of the federal government and is sure to provoke opposition from gun owners.

Wal-Mart executives, in an internal memorandum obtained by The Times, told store managers five weeks ago to stop selling firearms in cases where authorities were not able to determine whether the would-be buyers should be banned from owning a weapon.

Under federal law, if authorities cannot complete a criminal background check on a gun buyer within three business days, retailers are allowed to hand over the weapon even though the buyer's status is unclear. Nine states have more stringent standards, including California, where gun sellers must wait 10 days before completing a transaction.

The company "decided to take the extra step toward keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who possibly ought not to have them," according to the memo.

The move is a major change for a company that has sometimes been criticized for lax gun-sale policies. The Arkansas-based retailer's prominence in the national marketplace could put pressure on other major gun sellers to follow suit in voluntarily withholding firearms from buyers if it is unclear whether they are allowed to own one, observers said.

Wal-Mart's decision drew immediate criticism from the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-rights groups, which questioned the legality of the unannounced policy shift and hinted that they might seek to organize a boycott against the retailing giant.

In the vast majority of the more than 8 million gun checks a year, authorities determine the buyer's status in a matter of minutes or hours, confirming whether the would-be buyer has a felony record, has been institutionalized or is otherwise banned from owning a gun. Once no disqualifications are found, the gun dealer is allowed to complete the sale.

But in about 5% of sales, the buyer's legal status cannot be immediately determined--often because of similar names, lost paperwork or poor record-keeping. These cases have proved vexing to law enforcement because studies show that sales that proceed by default--when the three-day limit runs out--produce a disproportionately high number of cases in which a customer was able to buy a gun even though he was banned from doing so.

Americans for Gun Safety, a moderate gun-control group in Washington, found in a recent study that in a 2 1/2 year period, 10,000 felons and others banned from owning a gun were able to purchase weapons because their background checks could not be completed in three days. A similar congressional study last month confirmed widespread cracks in the system.

In an April letter, Americans for Gun Safety appealed to Wal-Mart and other large retailers that sell firearms--including Big 5, Gart Sports, Sports Authority and Kmart--to adopt a "don't know, don't sell" policy that would go beyond federal law.

Wal-Mart, which describes itself as "the local store of choice" for guns and sporting goods, did not responded to Americans for Gun Safety directly. But internally, the letter prompted executives to research the issue, and they were troubled to find nationwide data showing that the three-day defaults lead to many banned gun sales, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jessica Eldred.

As a result, the company decided "after much consideration" to change its policy effective May 29 in its 2,700 stores, nearly all of which sell guns, according to the memo.

The memo lays out the policy unequivocally: If a store receives a "delayed" response from federal or state authorities who conduct the background checks on potential buyers, "do NOT transfer the firearms until you receive a proceed. To restate, you MUST have a 'proceed' (no matter how long it takes) before any firearm is transferred to a Customer."

Gun-control groups have long supported extending the three-day period for background checks, but the issue is seen as politically suicidal in Washington. Indeed, the current move is in the opposite direction, as Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a strong backer of gun rights, has sought to complete the checks more quickly and destroy the records within 24 hours.

As a result, many observers were impressed by the decision to move beyond federal law.

"This is a very positive step for an organization as large as Wal-Mart to take," said retired FBI official James DeSarno, who oversaw the implementation of the background check system at the bureau. The tough-to-check cases that take longer than three days, he said, "are where you're going to find the problems."

Matt Bennett of Americans for Gun Safety said: "We're just delighted by how rapidly a huge corporation was able to pivot and change its policy on such an important issue. This is a major step, and if Wal-Mart is doing it, we hope others will follow their lead."

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