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Wal-Mart Gun Policy Praised, Scorned

Retailer: NRA registers opposition to the new sales decision but says no boycott is planned.

July 04, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Wal-Mart was deluged with both praise and condemnation Wednesday for its decision to toughen its policies on gun sales, a surprise move that highlighted flaws in the system that is used to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Expressing the National Rifle Assn.'s opposition to the move, the group's chief lobbyist spoke with a senior Wal-Mart manager to let the company know ''we feel it's not right that law-abiding citizens should have to bear the burden for a system that doesn't work,'' said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.

The NRA, which has 4 million members, is upset because Wal-Mart has told its store managers that they should no longer sell firearms in cases where authorities cannot determine whether the would-be buyer is banned from owning a weapon. The disclosure was first reported in The Times on Wednesday.

Under federal law, if authorities cannot determine within three business days if a buyer has a felony record or another disqualification, the dealer is allowed to complete the sale anyway. Nine states, including California, have tougher standards that require longer waiting periods.

The NRA emerged from its discussions Wednesday with a pledge to work with Wal-Mart to improve the background check system--a system that NRA lobbyist Chris Cox said ''has yet to deliver on its promise of an instant check to the American people.'' But Cox said the NRA is not considering a boycott of Wal-Mart--a relief to the nation's biggest retailer.

The NRA organized action against Kmart last year after a few stores briefly pulled guns and ammunition from their shelves in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings. Wal-Mart officials were concerned that they might now face similar action by the powerful lobby.

''We were glad to see that,'' Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jessica Eldred said of the NRA's announcement that it would not seek a boycott. ''You can imagine we have a lot of customers who are NRA members.''

Gun control advocates rallied around Wal-Mart on Wednesday, and the retailer said it received a number of calls and e-mails from customers about its decision. Most were positive, Eldred said.

''We have heard from NRA members today that said they support Wal-Mart's decision, and we feel that we've made the right decision,'' she said.

One of the NRA members who e-mailed Wal-Mart with praise was William Corgnell, a gunsmith who runs a sporting goods shop and sells firearms in Lake Alfred, Fla. He said in an interview that he believes Wal-Mart is taking a responsible approach and that even though federal law allows a sale to go through after three days, sellers should use their own discretion.

Corgnell, who described himself as a lifelong member of the NRA, said he disagrees with the group's stance. ''The NRA just doesn't want any restrictions'' on gun rights, he said.

Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest seller of guns, has been criticized in the past for allegedly lax gun policies that were linked to several high-profile shootings. The company decided to review its policy after receiving a letter in April from Americans for Gun Safety, a moderate gun control group in Washington, calling on it and other major gun retailers to voluntarily adopt a ''don't know, don't sell'' policy on gun sales.

About 95% of the millions of federal gun background checks each year generate results within a few hours. But Americans for Gun Safety pointed out in its April appeal that the small number of sales that are inconclusive after three days--and are allowed to proceed by default--produce a disproportionately high number of illegal gun sales to people banned from owning a weapon. A recent study by the group found about 10,000 cases in a 2 1/2-year period.

Americans for Gun Safety applauded Wal-Mart's decision on Wednesday and said that it hopes other major gun retailers will follow Wal-Mart's lead.

And the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said in a separate statement that Wal-Mart's decision ''marks a giant step forward in the fight to reform the gun industry and to encourage accountability from gun sellers and manufacturers.''

Officials at the FBI, which runs the National Instant Check System for conducting federal background checks, said they believe it is ''prudent'' for gun dealers to wait for a positive response before selling a weapon after three days, even though it is not required by law. But they rejected the notion that the background check system is at fault.

''The system has worked extraordinarily well,'' said FBI spokesman Paul Bressen.

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