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16 Apr 2008 08:25
Campaigners pressing for tougher controls on the sale of guns in the United States notched up a big victory this week when Wal-Mart, the country’s largest seller of firearms, agreed to a 10-point plan designed to prevent weapons falling into the hands of criminals.
Wal-Mart, which sells more guns than any company in the world, agreed to cooperate with Mayors against Illegal Guns, a bi-partisan group led by New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The group has been pushing for greater safeguards at retail outlets on the sale of firearms which fuel murder rates in America’s urban areas.
Under the agreement, Wal-Mart will tighten rules at about one-third of its 3 200 stores across the country.
A further third will stop trading guns altogether, though for reasons of declining sales.
The new restrictions include more extensive background checks on Wal-Mart staff selling guns.
The announcement came on the eve of the anniversary of last year’s Virginia Tech massacre, in which a college gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people—27 students and five lecturers—on campus. The university will hold a day of remembrance culminating in a candlelit vigil.
Wal-Mart’s concessions were immediately denounced by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which derided the move as a public-relations stunt.
“This stigmatises law-abiding firearms purchasers exercising their freedom under the Constitution,” the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, said. “I honestly think it’s a corporation trying to curry favour with politicians as opposed to doing anything meaningful about stopping crime.”
But for such a dominant chain as Wal-Mart to cooperate with Bloomberg’s campaign is symbolically important, and suggests that the NRA’s iron grip over the gun debate may be loosening. A record number of states are considering legislation that would enhance gun restrictions, mainly concerning the sale of firearms to convicted criminals and those with a history of mental illness.
According to the anti-gun group Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, 52 such Bills are being considered across 22 states.
The moves are partly in response to Virginia Tech. It was discovered after the massacre that Cho had managed to buy weapons via the internet and from gun shops in Virginia despite having had a long track record of anxiety and depression.
Though the second amendment of the US Constitution, granting the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” remains a powerful force, there is evidence that public opinion may be shifting. A nationwide poll carried out by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that nine out of 10 Americans wanted to see gun stores complete background checks on their employees.
A similar proportion of respondents who owned guns said they were unopposed or in favour of the filming of firearms sales.
The tighter regulations on sales is particularly poignant for Wal-Mart, which has always had a strong association with guns since it was set up in 1962 in Arkansas by the quail-hunting Sam Walton. The chain sells rifles and shotguns, but not handguns except in its Alaska stores.
The company has had a troubled reputation in this area. In 2005, it was forced to pay $14,5-million to the Californian state authorities after it was found to have committed thousands of violations of gun-safety laws. An investigation by the Californian justice department discovered 2 891 violations over a three-year period in five randomly chosen Wal-Mart stores.
The breaches included the delivery of guns to 23 people banned from buying them, and a further 36 sales to prohibited buyers through relatives or friends.
The agreement with Bloomberg prompted speculation that there may be some commercial consideration involved. Wal-Mart has long expressed an interest in opening outlets in New York City, but has failed to secure planning permission.—guardian.co.uk Â
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