I tried to buy a gun at Walmart twice, and roadblocks left me empty-handed both times
The availability of guns at Walmart has become a hotly debated issue in the wake of two deadly shootings at its stores that killed 24 people.
More than 128,000 people have signed a petition urging Walmart to stop selling guns and take a stronger stance against firearms since the shootings at stores in El Paso, Texas, and Southaven, Mississippi. But the company has said it has no plans to stop selling them.
I went to Walmart with the intention of buying a gun last week as part of an investigation into the placement, selection, marketing, and security of firearms in Walmart’s stores, and to learn more about the retailer’s processes governing gun sales.
My journey to bring a gun home from Walmart turned out to be far more complicated than I expected.
I hit a roadblock before I even left the house.
Walmart has said that about half of its 4,700 US stores sell guns.
I searched Walmart.com and Google on August 13 to find out which of the 10 Walmart stores near me sold guns, and I failed to come up with any definitive answers.
The only guns advertised on Walmart’s website are air guns. After about 30 minutes, I gave up on searching the internet and turned to the phone.
I figured that employees at any one of Walmart’s stores near me would know which locations sold guns.
Over an hour and a half, I placed more than a dozen calls to multiple stores, waited on hold for a combined 40 minutes, and got through to a human only three times. Three Walmart employees told me they didn’t know which stores sold guns in the area.
One person referred me to Walmart’s main customer-service line. I called that number and spoke with someone who said he also couldn’t help me.
“When it comes to item availability, they don’t want us to discuss that because of various reasons,” he said.
He declined to elaborate on this and said he knew of at least one location near me that didn’t sell guns.
I crossed that store off my list.
The customer-service representative advised me to call each store individually to find out whether it sold guns. When I told him that I had spent more than an hour doing just that and that several stores weren’t answering the phone, he said I could file a report with him concerning problems with specific locations. This was not helpful.
After hours of Googling and calling, I finally had a breakthrough and found a Walmart store that sold guns.
Someone answered the phone at a Walmart Supercenter in Chesterfield, Virginia.
She transferred me to the sporting-goods department, where a woman on the line confirmed that I could buy a gun there.
The store was 30 minutes away. I got in my car and plugged the address for the Chesterfield Walmart into my phone.
(Later, when I contacted Walmart’s media-relations team about my difficulty locating a store that sold firearms, a spokesman pointed me to the website for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which maintains a list of all gun retailers by state.)
When I arrived, I looked for the sporting-goods department. I found it about 100 steps from the closest entrance to the store.
On my way to the department, I walked past shelves of school supplies, the toy department, and the bike shop.
I spotted guns on display directly under the sign for the department.
A selection of about 20 rifles and shotguns was displayed in a locked glass case behind the sporting-goods counter. The guns ranged in price from $159 to $474.
The counter in front of the guns displayed pocket knives, binoculars, and digital night-vision monoculars inside a locked case.
The selection of guns was limited compared with nearby gun stores, which offered dozens of different kinds of firearms, including handguns.
Walmart stopped selling handguns in the 1990s and removed military-style semiautomatic rifles, such as the AR-15, from stores in 2015.
In prepared remarks last week, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon outlined some other Walmart gun-sales policies that go beyond federal requirements.
For example, Walmart last year raised the minimum age to purchase a gun or ammunition to 21. Walmart also sells a firearm only after receiving a “green light” on a background check, while federal law requires only the absence of a “red light” after three business days, he said.
“We videotape the point of sale for firearms, only allow certain associates to sell firearms, and secure firearms in a locking case with individual locks, among other measures,” McMillon said.
I told an employee behind the counter that I wanted to buy a gun. They called for a manager.
Signs posted around the counter announced that all firearm and ammunition sales were final and that items could not be returned or exchanged for a refund or repair.
One sign warned that this area of the store was being recorded. Another reminded shoppers of the laws around gun sales.
There were no signs promoting or advertising the guns.
Walmart faced backlash on social media this month over a photo of a gun display in one of its stores with a sign hanging overhead that said “Own the school year like a hero.”
Walmart said that photo, which was from 2017 but had resurfaced online, was a prank staged by a non-employee.
While I waited, I browsed the supply of air guns near the firearm-sales counter.
Air guns, pellet guns, and BB guns use air to propel projectiles such as pellets.
I also browsed the shelves of ammunition. Walmart said recently that it accounted for about 2% of all gun sales and 20% of ammunition sales in the US.
“We estimate that we represent about 2% of the market for firearms today, which we believe places us outside at least the top three sellers in the industry,” McMillon said in prepared remarks last week.
After a few minutes, a Walmart manager arrived at the gun-sales counter. She said I could not buy a gun that day because no authorized firearm sellers were scheduled to work.
She said I could come back to buy a gun on Thursday, two days later.
A Walmart spokesman later told me that to sell firearms, employees must pass both an enhanced criminal background check and annual online training, provided by Walmart, that includes a mock gun transaction.
Walmart also complies with state-specific requirements where applicable. Illinois, for example, requires people who sell guns to have a firearm-owner identification card, issued by state police.
Before I left the store, the manager offered to remove a rifle from the case for me to inspect.
I asked to look at the cheapest one. It cost $159.
When she unlocked the case, I noticed that the rifles were strung together with a metal cord. Each rifle was secured to the cord with plastic zip ties.
The manager cut a zip tie to remove the rifle, and immediately replaced it with a new zip tie when she returned it to the case.
After inspecting the rifle, I left the store and told her I would return two days later.
On Thursday, I drove another 30 minutes to Chesterfield, confident that I would successfully purchase a firearm that day.
I arrived at the sporting-goods department around noon.
There was no one attending the counter by the firearms. After waiting for about 10 minutes, I walked to another aisle and found someone to help me.
I told her I wanted to buy a gun. She said she was an authorized seller and that she could help me. We walked back to the gun display, where she picked up a phone and called someone.
“Can you meet at the front to help me with a gun sale?” she said into the phone. She turned to me and said she needed help to ensure the sale process was completed correctly.
She charged me $2 for a federal background check, then left the counter and returned a few minutes later with a form titled “Department of State Police Virginia Firearms Transaction Record.”
She told me to complete the form.
I started filling out the necessary paperwork to buy a gun.
The form asked several obvious questions: my name, address, and Social Security number. It also asked about my race, gender, and US citizenship status.
Under a section called “certification of transferee,” it asked about my criminal record — whether I had ever been convicted of a felony, subject to a restraining order, or prohibited from purchasing a firearm, among other specifics.
In red print, the form said that “an untruthful answer may subject you to criminal prosecution.”
The seller told me that my background check would likely be completed within a few minutes after I finished the paperwork. Once the purchase was finalized, an employee would walk the gun out to my car with me.
But I had only just finished printing my name when she stopped me and asked whether the address on my license matched my home address. I had moved since I obtained my license, and the addresses didn’t match.
That was a problem, she said.
To pass the background check, I would need to bring in a government-issued document with my correct address, such as a bill from a state-owned utility or a car registration. (I have never bought a gun, so I wasn’t aware of this.)
She apologized, told me the rules were strict around background checks, and asked me to come back another time to finish the purchase.