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Walmart to stop some ammo sales, ask to not open carry guns

NEW YORK — Walmart says it will stop selling handgun and short-barrel rifle ammunition, while requesting that customers not openly carry firearms in its stores, even where state laws allow it.

The announcement comes just days after a mass shooting claimed seven lives in Odessa, Texas, and follows back-to-back shootings last month, one of them at a Walmart store.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based discounter said Tuesday it will stop selling handgun ammunition as well as short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber used in military style weapons, after it runs out of its current inventory.

It will also discontinue handgun sales in Alaska. Walmart stopped selling handguns in the mid-1990s, with the exception of Alaska. The latest move marks its complete exit from that business and allows it to focus on hunting rifles and related ammunition only.

“In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again,” according to a memo by Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon circulated to employees Tuesday afternoon. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

The retailer is further requesting that customers refrain from openly carrying firearms at its Walmart and Sam’s Club stores unless they are law enforcement officers. However, it said that it won’t be changing its policy for customers who have permits for concealed carry. Walmart says it will be adding signage in stores to inform customers of those changes.

Last month, a gunman entered a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people . The gunman used an AK-style rifle — one that Walmart already bans the sale of — in the deadliest shooting in the company’s history. Texas became an open carry state in 2016, allowing people to openly carry firearms in public.

Walmart’s moves will reduce its market share of ammunition from around 20% to a range of about 6% to 9%, according to Tuesday’s memo. About half of its more than 4,750 U.S. stores sell firearms, or around 2% of all U.S. firearms. Most firearms sales are done through thousands of unaffiliated gun shops or gun shows, not big retail chains.

A number of gun control activists praised Walmart’s moves, while gun manufacturers such as Vista Outdoors and Smith & Wesson parent company American Outdoor Brands Corp. saw their shares fall.

Other companies have responded to public pressure to restrict gun sales. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced in March it would stop selling firearms and ammunition at 125 of its 700-plus locations. Kroger’s said last year that it would stop selling firearms and ammunition at its Fred Meyer stores in the Pacific Northwest. Kroger joined Walmart Tuesday in asking customers not to openly carry their guns when they visit its stores.

But supporters of stricter gun laws say Walmart’s latest steps should have an outsized influence because of its clout, sending a strong message to Congress as well as other corporations.

“Walmart deserves enormous credit for joining the strong and growing majority of Americans who know that we have too many guns in our country and they are too easy to get,” said Igor Volsky, executive director and founder of Guns Down America, in a statement. “That work doesn’t end with Walmart’s decision today. As Congress comes back to consider gun violence, Walmart should make it clear that it stands with Americans who are demanding real change.”

The National Rifle Association posted a tweet attacking Walmart’s announcement.

“It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites. Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms,” it said.

The nation’s largest retailer has been facing increasing pressure to change its gun policies by gun control activists, employees and politicians after the El Paso shooting and a second unrelated shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people . A few days before that, two Walmart workers were killed by another worker at a store in Southaven, Mississippi.

In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Walmart took an initial step of ordering workers in stores nationwide to remove video game signs and displays that depict violence. But that fell well short of demands for the retailer to stop selling firearms entirely. Critics have also wanted Walmart to stop supporting politicians backed by the NRA.

The retailer has long found itself in an awkward spot with its customers and gun enthusiasts. Many of its stores are located in rural areas where hunters depend on Walmart to get their equipment. Walmart is trying to walk a fine line by trying to embrace its hunting heritage while being a more responsible retailer.

With its new policy on “open carry,” McMillon noted in his memo that individuals have tried to make a statement by carrying weapons into its stores just to frighten workers and customers. But there are well-intentioned customers acting lawfully who have also inadvertently caused a store to be evacuated and local law enforcement to be called to respond.

Walmart and Kroger joins a string of other retailers and restaurants including Starbucks, Target and Wendy’s in asking customers not to openly carry their guns when they visit their premises. But they are not enforcing an outright ban because they don’t want to put their employees in confrontational situations.

Walmart says it hopes to help other retailers by sharing its best practices in background checks. And the company, which in 2015 stopped selling assault rifles like the AR-rifles used in several mass shootings, urged more debate on the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban while also calling for the government to strengthen background checks. Walmart said it sent letters Tuesday to the White House and the congressional leadership that call for action on these “common sense” measures.

Kroger said late Tuesday that it’s joining those encouraging elected leaders to pass laws that will strengthen background checks and remove weapons from those who have been found to pose a risk for violence.

Over the last 15 years, Walmart had expanded beyond its hunting and fishing roots, carrying items like assault rifles in response to increasing demand. But particularly since 2015, often coinciding with major public mass shootings, the company has made moves to curb the sale of ammunition and guns.Walmart announced in February 2018 that it would no longer sell firearms and ammunition to people younger than 21 and also removed items resembling assault-style rifles from its website. Those moves were prompted by the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

In 2015, Walmart stopped selling semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 style rifle, the type used in the Dayton shooting. The retailer also doesn’t sell large-capacity magazines. Dick’s Sporting Good stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2018.

Neighbors kick off planning for Longview-area National Night Out events

About 200 people gathered Tuesday in Longview to show the strength of unity as they prepared for National Night Out block parties that will take place nationwide Oct. 1.

“Gregg County can move from 123,000 individuals to one community,” Sheriff Maxey Cerliano told potential block party hosts and guests at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center.

Typically a city event, in which neighbors invite their neighborhood for an evening of fellowship and to just get to know each other, National Night Out 2019 will stretch into unincorporated areas. The sheriff said one top party in the northern and southern parts of Gregg County will earn National Night Out Neighborhood designations to let criminals know remote doesn’t mean vulnerable.

“Millions — do you hear that? — millions of neighbors participate in National Night Out,” Holly Fuller, executive director of co-sponsor Partners in Prevention, told the audience as they finished complimentary hot dogs and hamburgers. “We’re hoping that you are considering throwing a party.”

Longview Mayor Andy Mack walked into the ballroom about 10 minutes before the speeches began, clapped his hands together and shared a hug with restaurateur Rodolfo Stefano, who had picked up a yard sign and paraphernalia for a party.

The mayor looked over the crowd.

“Anytime you’re all rowing in the same direction, the boat travels a lot faster,” Mack said, later telling the audience, “This is so important and so significant, because you come because you care about this community. It makes it so much better to live in this town.”

Kevin Hawkins, another restaurant owner and a past speaker at the night out planning meeting, also secured his yard sign and party gear.

“I feel like this is a big deal, to strengthen the community and kill some of those stereotypes regarding South Longview,” Hawkins said, breaking from a chat with police Officer Laderian Brown.

Vendors, from retailers to local nonprofit groups such as the East Texas chapter of the American Red Cross, were on hand Tuesday as event sponsors and to share their niche in the goal of a safer community.

Citizens On Patrol Board President Mary Sandars said the 29th local version of National Night Out could be the biggest yet. COPS has about 40 members who patrol city neighborhoods at least three hours a month.

“The last time I heard, (National Night Out signups) were increasing, so it looks like a good turnout this year,” Sandars said. “You get to know your neighbors and make the city safer.”

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt summed up the practical nature of the annual block parties and the mingling that comes with them.

“It’s a great chance to bring together neighborhoods and the law enforcement that protects them,” the judge said. “Everybody just chips in. It’s all about folks coming together and making their neighborhoods safer. Get out in your streets and yards on Oct. 1.”

Texas shooter got gun at private sale; denied in 2014 check

ODESSA — The gunman in a West Texas rampage that left seven dead obtained his AR-style rifle through a private sale, allowing him to evade a federal background check that blocked him from getting a gun in 2014 due to a “mental health issue,” a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

The official spoke to The Associated Press Tuesday on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation. The person did not say when and where the private sale took place.

Officers killed 36-year-old Seth Aaron Ator on Saturday outside a busy Odessa movie theater after a spate of violence that spanned 10 miles (16 kilometers) and lasted more than an hour, injuring around two dozen people in addition to the dead. He spread terror across the two biggest cities in the Permian Basin while firing indiscriminately from his car into passing vehicles and shopping plazas. He also hijacked a U.S. Postal Service mail truck, killing the driver.

Ator had tried purchasing a firearm in January 2014 but was denied, the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement Tuesday. The agency said it was precluded by law from disclosing why, but the law enforcement official told the AP it was due to a “mental health issue.”

Private sales, which some estimates suggest account for 25 to 40 percent of all gun sales, are not subject to a federal background check in the United States. If the person selling the firearm knows the buyer cannot legally purchase or possess a firearm, they would be violating the law. But they are not required to find out if the person can possess a firearm and are not required to conduct a background check. The so-called “gun show” loophole means that Americans can buy a gun from an individual, get one bequeathed from a relative, obtain one through an online marketplace as well as from some dealers at gun shows — all without needing to go through a federal background check.

FBI special agent Christopher Combs said Ator “was on a long spiral of going down” and had been fired from his oil services job the morning of the shooting, and that he called 911 both before and after the rampage began. Online court records show Ator was arrested in 2001 for a misdemeanor offense that would not have prevented him from legally purchasing firearms in Texas.

Combs said Monday that Ator called the agency’s tip line as well as local police dispatch on Saturday after being fired from Journey Oilfield Services, making “rambling statements about some of the atrocities that he felt that he had gone through.” Fifteen minutes after the call to the FBI, Combs said, a Texas state trooper unaware of the calls to authorities tried pulling over Ator for failing to signal a lane change.

Ator fired on the trooper and fled, setting in motion a rampage that didn’t end until the gunman was killed at 4:17 p.m., according to Odessa police spokesman Steve LeSueur. That was one hour and four minutes after DPS said the trooper pulled over Ator.In 2018, more than 26 million background checks were conducted. Of those, fewer than 100,000 were denied with the vast majority of those rejected because the person was found to have a criminal past that made them ineligible. Far fewer just over 6,000 were because the person had been involuntarily committed.Gun-rights advocates have pushed back against efforts to include private sales, contending it would risk unwittingly turning someone into a felon for a private transaction with a friend or relative. They also argue that criminals will still get their hands on a firearm, regardless of what laws are on the books.

“In the guise of basically regulating private sales it creates a mechanism that is so labyrinthian that basically gun owners won’t be able to comply with it,” Michael Hammond, the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, told The Associated Press.

Gun-control advocates argue that the lack of a background check is making it too easy for the wrong people to skirt the background check system and get a gun. For example, on one well-known internet site for firearms sales, there were classified listings in recent days for about 1,700 long guns in Texas alone.

Combs said Ator “showed up to work enraged” but did not point to any specific source of his anger. Ator’s home on the outskirts of Odessa was a corrugated metal shack along a dirt road surrounded by trailers, mobile homes and oil pump jacks. Combs described it as a “strange residence” that reflected “what his mental state was going into this.”

Ator fired at random as he drove in the area of Odessa and Midland, cities more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) west of Dallas. Police used a marked SUV to ram the mail truck outside the Cinergy Movie Theater in Odessa, disabling the vehicle. The gunman then fired at police, wounding two officers before he was killed.

The number of mass killings so far this year has already eclipsed the total for all of last year. A teenager suspected of killing five family members in Alabama brought the total to 26 mass killings in 2019, claiming the lives of 147 people, compared with 25 mass killings and 142 deaths in 2018, according to a database by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. The database tracks homicides where four or more people are killed, not including the offender.

Area pastors go to border to see policies in action, plan D.C. lobbying trip

Pastors from Northeast Texas and across the state went to the Mexican border late last week on a fact-gathering mission in preparation to lobby Congress later this month on U.S. policies they believe are placing asylum seekers at greater risk of death and injury.

“Down in that area, the cartels are running the refugee camps,” said the Rev. Terra Pennington, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Longview.

Pennington joined about 100 pastors of several Christian denominations who spent Thursday through Saturday in Brownsville and its sister city across the border, Matamoros. Organized by a Henderson minister, the group listened to policy experts and met immigrants gathered in Mexico awaiting asylum hearings before an immigration judge.

Along the Rio Grande, Pennington heard immigrants’ horror stories, including that of a Guatemalan woman whose husband and 15-year-old were kidnapped and killed when she couldn’t pay their ransoms. The woman fled north with her daughter.

“They could still kidnap her daughter,” Pennington said. “So, now instead of seeking asylum from her country, she’s seeking asylum from Mexico, as well.”

Pennington said she took the short mission trip to see firsthand what’s happening along the Texas border.

“A big part of it was going across the border and seeing for ourselves what’s going on,” she said. “Because people can argue religion, but you can’t argue with experiences.”

The Rev. Steve Miller, pastor of Mount Hebron Baptist Church in Henderson, said about 100 Texas ministers of all denominations responded when he began making calls to organize the quick trip. As opposed to a relief mission, this trip was a fact-finding trek for the group to arm itself to lobby Congress later this month.

Miller said the group was briefed on the newly changed policy that requires immigrants to exhaust asylum claims in each country through which they pass on the journey north from Central American countries. The U.S. authorities at the border now also require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their hearing request is processed.

“What we learned is the United States government has made it almost impossible to immigrate legally,” Miller said. “Now, while these people are fleeing, you have to go through the asylum process in country after country that you pass through. And when you’re running for your life, who’s going to do that? That’s a huge change in policy. All these pastors are going to go to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 and lobby Congress to make these legislative changes and to appropriate more money ... for them to take showers and brush their teeth.”

Miller, who said he’d never before crossed into Mexico, said the ministers encountered about 200 immigrants on the riverbank.

“They are in mortal danger when they’re waiting,” he said. “It’s not safe. ... I can’t believe that, as a country, we don’t have compassion to bring safety to people who are running for their lives.”

One man Miller met was on the run from the Nicaraguan military he’d deserted after refusing an order to shoot civilians.

“And the judge believed his story because he had pictures,” Miller said.

Miller said pastors from Longview, Henderson, Shreveport, Dallas and other Texas communities joined the trip.

“They were all faiths,” he said. “There were Baptists, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, nondenominational, Methodist. It was everybody — black, white, Hispanic, women, men. It was very diverse.”