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Walmart, Dick's change firearm sales policies amid gun debate

Customers outside a Dick's Sporting Goods store in

Customers outside a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Landover, Md., on Dec. 31, 2014. Credit: Victor J. Blue

The largest U.S. sporting goods chain and the world’s biggest retailer both changed course on their firearms sales Wednesday amid the tense national debate over gun violence.

Dick’s Sporting Goods announced in the morning that it was halting sales of assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines at its stores and banning the sale of guns to anyone younger than 21.

On Wednesday evening, Walmart said it was raising the minimum age for customers to buy firearms and ammunition to 21 years old. The retailer banned semi-automatic weapon sales in 2015.

The retailers’ announcements came the same day that students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, returned to class for the first time since a teenager killed 17 students and educators with an AR-15 two weeks ago.

“When we saw what the kids were going through and the grief of the parents and the kids who were killed in Parkland, we felt we needed to do something,” Dick’s chairman and CEO, Edward Stack, said on “Good Morning America.”

Dick’s had cut off sales of assault-style weapons at Dick’s stores following the Sandy Hook school shooting. But sales had resumed at its Field & Stream chain .

A worker who answered the phone at the Field & Stream store in Melville, that chain’s only Long Island location, declined to comment. Dick’s Sporting Goods’ corporate office, located outside Pittsburgh, did not respond to requests for comment about the specific types of weapons it pulled from its stores in New York State, which put tough restrictions on assault-style weapons sales five years ago.

There are nine Dick’s stores on Long Island.

In 2013, New York State’s SAFE Act broadened the definition of banned “assault weapons” when it categorized them as semi-automatic firearms that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military-style feature.

The AR-15 used in the Parkland mass shootings is among the weapons that are banned from sale in the state.

The decision to overhaul its own rules on gun sales put Dick’s out front in a falling out between corporate America and groups such as the National Rifle Association.

A number of major U.S. corporations including MetLife, Hertz, Delta Air Lines and First National Bank of Omaha cut ties with the NRA in the days following the Parkland shooting.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, an Albany-based nonprofit that is the state affiliate of the NRA, blasted Dick’s decision Wednesday afternoon.

Dick’s new age restriction is a “slap in the face” to anyone who joins the military at 18 and is discharged at 20 who wants to buy a firearm in New York State, King said.

“Dick’s position of selling guns to no one under 21 years old is a sham. It’s a ruse,” said Tom King, president of the association.

New York State law mandates that individuals must be at least 21 years old to obtain a license to possess a handgun, unless they have been honorably discharged by the military. No permit is required for a long gun.

A better national response to gun violence would be to put armed security forces, such as retired police officers and military members, in schools, and to enforce existing gun laws, King said.

Individuals younger than 16 years old cannot possess any firearms or ammunition generally.

The retailer’s move is politically motivated but does not effectively address the issue of gun violence in schools, he said.

“We’re putting a Band-Aid on a problem that we’re afraid to confront. The problem is mental health. The problem is no regard for human life. The problem is no fathers in the homes. The problem is a lack of regard for any kind of social convention,” King said.

Dick’s CEO Stack on Wednesday called for significant changes to U.S. gun policy, and called on lawmakers to act now.

“We support and respect the Second Amendment, and we recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible, law-abiding citizens,” Stack wrote in a letter Wednesday. “But we have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us. Gun violence is an epidemic that’s taking the lives of too many people, including the brightest hope for the future of America — our kids.”

Walmart Stores Inc., also a big gun seller, stopped selling AR-15 rifles and other semi-automatic weapons in 2015, citing weak sales.

It also does not sell bump stocks, high-capacity magazines or similar accessories, it said in a statement announcing the new age requirement Wednesday.

Walmart also is removing products from its website that resemble assault-style rifles, including nonlethal airsoft guns and toys, it said.

“We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller of firearms and go beyond federal law by requiring customers to pass a background check before purchasing any firearm. The law would allow the sale of a firearm if no response to a background check request has been received within three business days, but our policy prohibits the sale until an approval is given,” the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said.

Stack also revealed that Nikolas Cruz, who killed the students in Florida using AR-15 assault-style rifle, had purchased a shotgun at a Dick’s store within the past four months.

“It was not the gun, nor type of gun, he used in the shooting,” Stack wrote. “But it could have been. Clearly this indicates on so many levels that the systems in place are not effective to protect our kids and our citizens.”

Dick’s headquarters in western Pennsylvania are in a state where the first day of deer hunting season is an unofficial holiday for many families.

On the other side of the state Wednesday, a religious group held a blessing ceremony for couples with AR-15 rifles.

The World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, north of Philadelphia, believes that the AR-15 symbolizes the “rod of iron” in the biblical book of Revelation.

An elementary school down the street canceled classes for the day.

Stack said on “Good Morning America” that Dick’s is prepared for any potential backlash, but it will never allow the sale of such guns in its stores again.

Stack called on elected officials to ban assault-style firearms, bump stocks and high capacity magazines and raise the minimum age to buy firearms to 21. He said universal background checks should be required, and there should be a complete universal database of those banned from buying firearms. He also called for the closure of the private sale and gun show loophole that waives the necessity of background checks.

Gun-control advocacy groups said voters and corporations are taking the lead on U.S. gun policy, and lawmakers need to catch up.

“This is the moment when business leaders across the country get to decide if they want to stand on the right side of history. Mothers make the majority of spending decisions for their families, and we want to shop with businesses that care about the safety of our families — making this a smart business move, too,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Dick’s Sporting Goods should be applauded.”

The National Rifle Association has pushed back aggressively against calls for raising age limits for guns, or limits on sales of assault-style weapons.

Calls to the NRA were not immediately returned Wednesday.

— With AP

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