Wal-Mart sits in Feds' crosshairs for gun-sale violations

Lapses in background checks at California stores lead to calls for wider inspections.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the sporting goods section of Wal-Mart here, you can buy camp stoves, fishing tackle, and baseballs. But you can't - for the next few days, at least - buy the rifles and shotguns that have made the retail giant one of the largest sellers of firearms nationwide.

In a move that antigun groups say warrants similar action across all 50 states, California recently announced Wal-Mart would temporarily halt firearms sales within the state after justice officials found nearly 500 violations of gun laws by just six stores in one month. It's a setback for the retailer which, Thursday, was given notice that the state of New York intends to sue the corporation for selling toy guns that the state says could be mistaken for real weapons.

In California, investigators found illegal sales to felons, scores of firearms released to buyers before the 10-day waiting period and background checks were completed, and failures to identify purchasers through thumbprints and a driver's license - as required by state law.

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"Public safety is severely jeopardized when gun dealers provide firearms to people who are prohibited from possessing, much less purchasing, them," said state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. He announced that Wal-Mart had immediately suspended the sale of firearms at 188 stores following the inspections in the Central Valley and Sacramento areas. The move is temporary until the company corrects the problems.

Groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence say that if one large retailer in one state has been found guilty of so many violations, similar investigations in other states and other retailers are likely to find even more widespread violations.

"One of the biggest problems causing the ease of getting weapons into criminals' hands has been the growth of these big superstores where employees are responsible for products ranging from paint and lawn furniture to appliances and guns," says Luis Tolley, California spokesman for the Brady campaign.

But pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association say the Wal-Mart/California example is likely confined to one store and one state. Even if such infractions do occur elsewhere, pro-gun groups say, they are probably not as egregious as in California, which requires more background checking by law than other states.

"In this state you have to jump through four hoops, three fires, and over the mountains to sell a firearm, it's ludicrous," says Shirley Andrews, owner of Andrews Sporting Goods Inc, which runs Turner's Outdoorsman, the largest gun dealer in California. She says the training of personnel to properly sell firearms is complex. "Once Wal-Mart figures out how complicated this is to do properly, they will also find out it is more costly, and will likely raise prices closer to mine," she says.

Wal-Mart officials say they are moving to correct the situation as quickly as possible. They are sending out training videos to stores via mail and intracompany satellites. But some employees say the videos are unclear.

"I just watched the video and I am scratching my head," says Bryan Lloyd, sports department manager at the Simi Valley Wal-Mart, who says he will likely have to train seven or eight employees how to file paperwork - and how to require documentation from purchasers that can include tax bills, car registration, proofs of address, and birth certificates.

Yet pro-gun lobbyists say there is too much regulation, or too much of the wrong kind.

"If society's aim is to make sure that undesirables don't get hands on guns, doesn't it make sense that you would want to have the red flag go up instantly at the point of sale, so we can apprehend them right then rather than waiting 7-10 days?" asks Christopher Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA. "In light of Wal-Mart's problems, maybe this is a question to ask."

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