When Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, December 14, inexplicably bent on ending as many lives as possible, he was carrying a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle and several high-capacity magazines. Sadly, this isn’t the first time the country has had to deal with the aftermath of a horrific shooting spree, nor is it the first time we’ve encountered an AR-15 in this context: only days earlier, it was the weapon of choice for a shooting at an Oregon mall that killed two people. Five months earlier, it was used by James Holmes in an attack that wounded fifty-eight people and killed twelve in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. And several years before that, a man and his teenage accomplice used a Bushmaster AR-15 to terrorize the Washington, DC, area with a series of random shootings.
Although it is not yet clear where the Bushmaster AR-15 used by Lanza (and registered to his mother) was purchased, the model is familiar to many Walmart shoppers. It’s on sale at about 1,700 Walmart stores nationwide, though the retail chain pulled the weapon from its website three days after the attack. While the deadly rampage in Connecticut has finally and unmistakably highlighted the madness of making such weapons readily available, it’s a concern that many people with a Walmart in their community have been trying to address for years. Several months back, the Rev. Greg Brown had a troubling conversation with two members of his youth group from the northwest side of South Bend, Indiana. “They were honor roll students and little young folks that love the Lord,” Brown recounted. “One of the kids came up to me and said, ‘Rev, you ain’t gonna believe what happened the other day at Walmart.’” The kids went on to describe how, on a recent visit to the big-box store, a man asked them to fill up a gym bag with ammunition and sneak it out of the store for him. They declined.
Walmart’s ammunition sales have troubled Brown since at least 2009, when two teenagers shoplifted bullets from the local Walmart, shot at an employee who tried to stop them in the parking lot, and then embarked on a citywide robbery spree in which one man was seriously injured. When Brown headed down to the store to see how easy it would be to steal ammunition, he was shocked. Not only were there bullets arrayed on the unlocked shelves; there were rows of guns as well, including assault rifles.
South Bend has the most violent crime per capita in Indiana and well more than double the national median. Brown was outraged that Walmart was even selling these weapons, let alone that they were unlocked and under the supervision of hourly employees without specific training in firearm handling and sales. (Brown says a former Marine handles the gun sales at a nearby Dick’s Sporting Goods.) “It’s totally wrong, and it’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “You look back there and see a dad holding a gun, his son pulling on his pocket. And the son knows the gun is going home. The son’s going to know where the gun is.”
South Bend isn’t the only place where Walmart is stocking guns, including combat-style weapons and gun-related paraphernalia. The big-box chain at one point sold guns in only about a third of its stores, mainly in remote rural areas where hunting is popular. But in 2011, without much fanfare, Walmart expanded gun sales to about half of its 3,982 stores nationwide, including those in more urban areas like Albuquerque and Spokane.
The expansion of gun sales at Walmart came after a five-year slowdown. In 2006, the chain announced that it was rolling back gun sales, citing declining profit margins on the relatively expensive weapons, which even at Walmart can retail for hundreds of dollars. But in 2011, company executives were looking at eight straight quarters of declining sales at stores open for a year or more—the worst slump in Walmart’s history.