SALT LAKE CITY — "Can you really buy a gun at Walmart?" asked a German citizen recently on the "Ask an American" forum at Reddit.
Starting next week, the answer in New Mexico will be "not anymore."
Walmart is ending gun sales there on July 22 because of a new law that requires its stores to perform background checks for firearms sales between individuals.
The law, which went into effect July 1, doesn't mention Walmart specifically. It requires any store that sells guns — to include pawn shops and sporting goods stores such as the Utah-based Sportsman's Warehouse — to also be a place where individuals buying and selling guns can go to transact the sale and obtain the required background check.
Before the law took effect, background checks were required for store sales, in keeping with federal law, but not for sales between individuals.
For Walmart, which sells only "new, in-the-box guns" according to spokeswoman Delia Garcia, the requirement amounted to a deal-breaker. It meant that people could be entering the stores carrying guns they purchased elsewhere — and guns that Walmart chooses not to sell, such as AR-15s.
"Walmart is not currently equipped or designed to service firearms transfers between private parties," Garcia said in a statement provided to the Deseret News.
With Walmart out of the gun market, New Mexicans still have many other places to buy guns. However, as the No. 1 retailer in the world in terms of revenue (eclipsing even Amazon, which doesn't sell guns), Walmart's policies on gun sales get noticed, and its policies have become more restrictive in recent years. The company stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2015 and increased the minimum age for purchases to 21 in 2018.
Twitter users were quick to suggest an ominous trend in the latest announcement. "If you put gun dealers out of business, who needs a Second Amendment?" one Twitter user in West Virginia wrote.
But some gun enthusiasts say Walmart was simply forced out of the firearms market in New Mexico because of liability imposed by the legislation. States that want background checks for private sales should designate places other than popular stores for transactions, they say.
Largely left out of the conversation, however, is another question: Should stores that sell diapers also sell guns? For now, most American states have no problem with that. And research shows that most criminals aren't buying their guns at big-box stores anyway.
Federal law already requires a background check on anyone buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer. The online system, mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, is run by the FBI and has been in place since 1998. It processed more than 26 million background checks in 2018, according to the FBI; of those, 99,252 applications were denied. The average processing time — the amount of time it takes to get an answer — was slightly more than 2 minutes (about 136 seconds) in 2018.
Federal law does not require background checks for private sales. However, 20 states and the District of Columbia require them for at least some types of private transactions, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. (Utah does not.)
New Mexico now requires a federal background check for almost anyone purchasing a gun, with the exception of transactions between law-enforcement officers or transactions between immediate family members, which the law broadly defines to include grandparents, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and first cousins.
Antique guns are also exempt.
The law goes on to say that the checks must be conducted through federally licensed firearm sellers, such as Sportman's Warehouse, and that the stores "shall not reasonably refuse" any request to process the transaction. (The law, however, does not specifiy a penalty for refusing to comply.)
Mark Oliva, a former Marine who is director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said Walmart’s decision makes sense because of the liability New Mexico’s bill foists on the store. The bill, in effect, makes businesses become “actors of the government, performing governmental functions," Oliva said. Besides compelling the stores to let people enter carrying guns that the stores may have chosen not to sell, there's also the problem that the store essentially has custody of the gun if the transaction fails.
"These are the concerns that lawmakers aren't thinking of when they say, 'Oh, we'll have these retailers conduct these background checks'," Oliva said. "And it's not just Walmart. What about that mom-and-dad gun shop on the corner that's been there for 50 years. What are they supposed to do now?"
Some states that require background checks for private sales designate law-enforcement agencies to provide the service, or make it optional for federally licensed dealers, which is what Oregon did when it mandated private-seller checks in 2015. At the time, however, some Oregon sheriffs said they did not intend to enforce the law, and law enforcement leaders in New Mexico have said that as well.
According to Andrew Oxford, writing for Governing magazine, officials in 25 of New Mexico's 33 counties have declared themselves to be among "Second Amendment sanctuaries" and said they would not enforce third-party checks, which Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace has called "unenforceable" because guns can quietly change hands with cash and no paperwork if both the seller and buyer agree.
Walmart was in no position, however, to ignore the law, nor are other retailers.
"Walmart takes its responsibility as a federal firearms licensee very seriously, and our background check policy exceeds current legal requirements," Garcia said.
Sportman's Warehouse, which is based in Midvale, Utah, has three stores in New Mexico and will continue selling guns. In a statement provided to the Deseret News, the company said, "Sportsman's Warehouse has served outdoor enthusiasts in New Mexico for many years and we remain committed to serving our customers. ... Due to recent New Mexico law changes, we are announcing our New Mexico stores will facilitate private-party firearm sales.”
Why Walmart matters
Not only is Walmart the largest retailer in terms of profit, the company also employs more Americans than any other business nationwide. (Specific to Utah, Intermountain Healthcare is the largest employer, USA Today reported.)
As such, any decision the company makes is subject to intense scrutiny, especially on a topic as volatile as guns. Walmart does not say how many guns it sells each year, but some analysts say that Walmart and large sporting goods retailers account for about 20 percent of gun sales in the nation.
Larry Scanlan, president of the Utah State Rifle & Pistol Association, said he’s owned guns for 50 years, but has never bought one from a Walmart, although his first purchase, at age 21, was at a sporting goods store in Minnesota.
Scanlan said he understands why Walmart would make the decision, but he doesn't see a lot of outrage among his fellow sport shooters.
“People get a little unhappy, but there are so many other locations you can go to, that it's probably not too big a deal," he said.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, doesn't expect New Mexico's experience to prompt a similar change in Utah, where people who have concealed-carry permits don't have to pass a background check for gun purchases, but the permit status of holders is checked every 24 hours.
"I suppose a law like the one passed in New Mexico could pass in Utah but it is unlikely," Aposhian said.
"We don't have a pattern of problems with illegal activities with individual sales, Aposhian added.
Interviews conducted with people in prison have shown that most criminals obtained their guns from friends and family members, or the underground market, said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy, economics and sociology at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, who studies gun availability.
“If you ask prisoners and inmates and other active criminals, ‘Where did you get your most recent gun?’ very few of them say they got it from a gun dealer of any kind, whether it be Walmart or a sporting good store," Cook said.
Cook said he is unaware of any guns sold at Walmart that were used in a highly publicized mass shooting. “When people are carrying or using guns illegally, typically the guns have changed hands a number of times,” he said.
As such, any effect that Walmart’s entrance or exit into a gun market has may be primarily economic, although if prices go up overall, this could have an effect on the secondary movement, Cook said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a gun at Walmart, but I think they have some pretty great prices with their buying power,” Aposhian said, adding that he’s heard that some standard long guns can be bought at a Walmart for the price that gun-store owners get from their distributors.
Price is one reason that Oliva and other gun enthusiasts say guns should be available at Walmart and other properly licensed mass-market stores.
Convenience is the other. “The firearms that Walmart is selling, they’re the firearms that are going to be affordable by Joe Six-Pack America,” Oliva said. "Walmart carries good quality guns that are affordable for most Americans."
And as for selling firearms in the same store where young mothers buy toys and diapers, he says, “Children are better served when they are taught a healthy respect for firearms.”
But others have pointed to Walmart's place as a one-stop-shop for families as a reason that guns don't belong there. Writing in The Nation in 2012, George Zornick interviewed an Indiana pastor who lobbied to get Walmart to stop selling guns and ammunition in his state.
"You can go in Walmart at 3:30 in the morning and you can’t buy a can of beer. But you can walk in there to the ammunition (counter) and buy as many boxes as you want. I have a problem with that," the Rev. Greg Brown said.
Although New Mexicans can no longer buy firearms at Walmart beginning Monday, they can still buy ammunition there, and firearms are still plentiful at other places, including pawn shops, specialty gun stores and sporting goods stores.
The most significant impact of New Mexico's newest gun law may be how — and if — the experience there affects legislation in other states. With Walmart out of gun sales because of the bill, does New Mexico turn into a good example or a horrible warning for states considering universal background checks?
Oliva said he and his colleagues at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Connecticut, hope that the law will be changed. “This exposes the fallacy of universal background checks," he said. "Universal background checks will not work unless you have a national gun registry, and a national gun registry is prohibited by federal law."
Cook, at Duke University, said that reaction to New Mexico’s law is understandable, both by Walmart and people who are used to selling guns in private transactions without the hassle or cost of a background check. That's compounded, he said, when sheriffs say they will not enforce the law.
“There’s been a lot of hope for universal background check laws, but the reality has set in, about their effectiveness. They're not going to be particularly effective if they’re not not enforced,” Cook said.