Sporting-goods customers at Wal-Mart stores in Utah have criticized the corporation's decision to ban over-the-counter handgun sales, despite national politicians likening the measure to an unexpected holiday gift.

Gun-control advocates may support the restriction, but the decision has caught fire from customers at stores across the state, Wal-Mart employees say.Existing handgun stock not sold by Feb. 1 will be returned to the manufacturer and will only be available via catalog, said Jane Arend, director of public relations for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Of Wal-Mart's 1,994 stores, 11 of which are located in Utah, only 700 sell guns. The ban will not affect rifle, shotgun or ammunition sales at those stores, Arend said.

In August, Wal-Mart officials restricted handgun sales, based on concern that customers felt uneasy seeing the weapons so readily available. The decision was never formally announced to the public, but news of it spread last week following articles in several Arkansas newspapers, Arend said.

"(The decision) was in response to our customers feeling different about handguns in the stores," she said. "The long guns didn't appear to be an issue."

In Utah, news of the handgun restrictions resulted in overwhelming criticism and a busier-than-usual holiday rush to buy the weapons, store sales personnel said.

"Because we're in sporting goods, we're getting more (people) critical of it," said Ken Bird, manager of the sporting goods division at the Wal-Mart store in Bennion. "They don't feel like they should be controlled."

The Bennion store stocked some 40 handguns for the holiday season and sold all but 18, Bird said. Those will be returned if not sold by the Feb. 1 deadline.

"We're not taking anymore, we're just selling what we have," agreed Jeremy Bistline, sporting goods salesman at the Wal-Mart store in St. George. "Most people are kind of upset about it. It's kind of more restrictions and they don't like it."

Wal-Mart salesman Bill Maxwell said at least 100 handguns were sold at the Cedar City store during December, leaving only 45 in the store's inventory.

"I think everybody is having problems with what's happening with handguns," Maxwell said, referring to impending government controls regulating gun-buying practices. "Everybody is kind of running scared," believing they won't be able to buy them soon, he said.

In Tooele, gun sales were up 10 to 15 percent, Wal-Mart salesman Gary Hunt said.

"It's a wide swing against it," Hunt said of his customers' response to the restriction. "We have our regulars who are hard-core gun people. As a general rule, most agree something needs to be done but not against the (law-abiding) public."

To law enforcement, the measure marks another controversial attempt to fight crime but with a success rate yet to be determined.

"The public awareness is definitely up when it comes to handgun issues and fear of handguns. Herein lies the controversy," Salt Lake County sheriff's spokesman Rod Norton said. "What steps are really going to help? If those things will help, the sheriff will support it. We want as much as anybody to get handguns out of the hands of criminals, but we don't want to be dictating which road to take."

Yet critics of the measure say the restrictions may have more of an effect on serious gun enthusiasts than criminals. Many Wal-Mart customers have reinforced that claim with their comments, employees say.

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Nearly 99 percent of the Tooele store's gun sales, including handgun sales, involve sports hunters, according to Hunt.

"We are a big-game hunting state, big time," he said. In the past six years, handguns have become a popular hunting tool in a move toward more primitive hunting skills, such as black-powder and archery hunting, he said.

On the national level, the National Rifle Association has also criticized the handgun restriction as an ineffective attempt to control crime and an inconvenience for the customer.

"It's not going to keep guns out of the hands of criminals because the criminals aren't buying their guns at Wal-Mart," said J.P. Nelson, field representative for the National Rifle Association in Sacramento, Calif. "They're probably going to lose some customers. It's just an inconvenience."

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