Seth Ator, the 36-year-old man who authorities say went on a rampage in west Texas over the weekend (seven dead, two dozen injured), sought to buy a firearm from a federally licensed gun dealer five years ago but was rejected when a background check turned up a mental health issue that barred him from owning a gun. However, because federal law only requires background checks for sales through licensed dealers, Ator was able, according to the Associated Press, to turn to a private seller for the combat-style rifle he used over the course of an hour in and around Odessa.
It would be naïve to think that had universal background checks been in place, Ator would not have found a way to obtain a rifle through other means. But if such firearms — designed for combat and marketed to civilians for their “Rambo” appeal — were banned, and if all transfers of ownership of any gun required a background check, it would have been a lot harder for Ator to have acquired that weapon. That may have been sufficient to avert this tragedy, and others numbingly like it.
Despite what the Violence Project says has been an increase in both the frequency and lethality of mass shootings, gun enthusiasts and their congressional allies cling to the notion that their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms supersedes the right of the rest of us to go about our daily lives without getting shot. In the wake of the west Texas mass shooting and the massacre at an El Paso Walmart last month in which 22 people died, there’s been some lip service paid to the idea of common sense gun control — but no action. Pro-gun Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, citing Ator’s unspecified criminal history and the fact that he had previously failed a background check, was moved to tweet, “We must keep guns out of criminals’ hands.” But Abbott has said similar things before, and after the massacre of 10 people at Santa Fe High School near Houston, he convened a roundtable putatively to contemplate actions to counter gun violence. But he also signed a series of bills that loosened gun controls (and which, ironically, went into effect the day after the west Texas rampage).
So it was heartening to see Walmart’s announcement Tuesday that, in its view, enough is enough. Just four days before the carnage outside the retail giant’s El Paso store, a disgruntled employee allegedly shot and killed two managers at a Walmart in Southaven, Miss., and five days after the El Paso massacre a man wearing body armor and carrying a loaded rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition entered a Missouri Walmart. He allegedly told police that he was testing his 2nd Amendment right to be armed (Missouri allows open carry of firearms). Then came the massacres in Dayton, Ohio, and Odessa, and while neither involved a Walmart store, the corporation saw them as part of a whole. “It’s clear to us,” said Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, “that the status quo is unacceptable.”
Walmart now will stop selling certain sizes of ammunition used in combat-style weapons and will end sales of all handgun ammunition. In addition, it will ask customers in open-carry states to leave their guns behind when they enter a Walmart.
These steps come on top of other steps the company has taken unilaterally, most notably closing the so-called Charleston loophole at its stores. (Federal law allowed Dylann Roof, whose criminal history should have made him ineligible, to buy guns because the background check took more than three days; he then killed nine worshipers at an African American church in Charleston, S.C.) Walmart sells firearms only to people who pass a background check.
Earth-changing? Hardly. But it’s a step in the right direction. Other retailers have already taken similar steps. Walmart itself had already stopped selling handguns everywhere but Alaska — now it will end sales there, too — and it stopped selling combat-style firearms in any story in 2015. These are good steps, although it would obviously be better if there were reasonable federal gun control measures, including universal background checks and a ban on the so-called assault rifles.
Yet we’re deeply skeptical that gun-control advocates can overcome the gun lobby, even with the current inner turmoil and external investigations of the National Rifle Assn. But in this consumer economy, maybe a side door has opened a little wider. Maybe, just maybe, fewer stores selling fewer deadly weapons to fewer people will mean fewer massacres, fewer men killing their intimate partners, fewer suicides and fewer accidental shooting deaths.