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Wal-Mart Adopts Tougher Gun-Sale Policy

July 02, 2002
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Wal-Mart Adopts Tougher Gun-Sale Policy

by Eric Lichtblau, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - Wal-Mart, the United States' 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.

Wal-Mart executives, in an internal memorandum obtained by the Los Angeles Times, told store managers five weeks ago to stop selling firearms in cases in which 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.

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 break 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.

Wal-Mart's decision drew immediate fire from the National Rifle Association 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 percent of sales, the buyer's legal status cannot immediately be determined. Studies have shown 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 over 2-1/2 years, 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 to adopt a "don't know, don't sell" policy that would go beyond federal law.

The Wal-Mart memo lays out the policy : 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."

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