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Wal-Mart Settles Gun Sales Lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will pay $14.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the California attorney general that accuses the nation’s largest retailer of a host of gun law violations, state officials said Wednesday.

The settlement, the largest of its kind since Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer’s office established a firearms division in 1999, requires Wal-Mart to pay $5 million in fines. Lockyer said the deal also called for Wal-Mart, which agreed last year to halt gun sales across California, to reform its practices should it ever resume firearm sales in the state.

“They were the largest gun seller in California,” said Lockyer, who said the company put the lives of all Californians at risk by placing guns in the hands of criminals. “Their business practices become critical to public safety.”

In addition to the fines, Wal-Mart will spend at least $4.5 million to comply with state and federal laws governing the sale of firearms, Lockyer’s office said. An additional $3 million is earmarked for a public service campaign promoting firearm safety and for developing a program to encourage all California gun dealers to verify the ages of people buying ammunition.

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Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.

“We’re happy the state takes this issue seriously, but we’re not going to debate the original concerns,” Whitcomb said.

Lockyer’s lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court, followed an audit late last year of five Wal-Mart stores in Simi Valley, Folsom, Turlock, Fresno and Ukiah. The audit uncovered 2,891 alleged violations between 2000 and 2003.

The alleged violations included selling firearms to 23 people prohibited from owning them, delivering firearms before completing criminal background checks and failing to verify buyers’ identities through thumbprints and driver’s licenses, Lockyer’s office said. At least three dozen people made “straw purchases,” or bought guns on behalf of people barred from owning them, resulting in the filing of charges against 20 people.

California firearms agents began inspecting gun sales at Wal-Mart in 1999, uncovering numerous alleged violations of state gun laws; the state soon set up a special training program for Wal-Mart employees to help them comply with state laws.

More apparent violations were uncovered at a Wal-Mart store in Pleasanton in 2001, including a failure by the company to conduct background checks on workers selling guns. Additional inspections in 2002 and 2003 revealed more supposed violations, sending agents to investigate Wal-Mart stores in Turlock, Merced, Los Banos, Madera and Sacramento. Agents said they found hundreds of alleged violations at stores in those cities of state gun laws, prompting Wal-Mart to halt sales across California.

The settlement announced Wednesday “concludes a two-year enforcement effort against Wal-Mart,” Lockyer said.

“They cooperated in trying to respond to our demands that they observe our laws so that ex-felons, mentally ill and other prohibited [people] don’t get weapons,” he said.

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Wal-Mart hasn’t decided whether it will resume firearm sales at its more than 150 California stores, but it has kept its licenses up to date, Whitcomb said. New Jersey and Hawaii are the only other states where Wal-Mart doesn’t sell firearms, he said.

Under terms of the settlement, the company will reimburse the state for $2 million in investigative and monitoring costs.


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