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Who Can Sell a Gun?

When retailers walked back their gun sales policies, some people were surprised at who was carrying all along.

A blue shopping cart with a Walmart logo on the back.
A shopping cart outside a Walmart in Chicago.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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In the aftermath of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month, a wave of retailers have walked back their policies regarding the sale of guns. You probably caught this in the news last week: Dick’s Sporting Goods is eliminating assault-style rifles from its Field & Stream stores, cutting high capacity magazines from its stock, and no longer selling firearms to anyone under 21. Walmart, Kroger’s Fred Meyer stores, and L.L.Bean are also raising their minimum age of purchase to 21. REI is dropping 50 brands that are owned by Vista Outdoor, which also manufactures guns. Amid a fierce outcry from young people on the issue of gun control, led by the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, corporations’ consciences seem to have kicked in.

For some people, including a handful in the Racked office, however, the news that Dick’s, Walmart, and L.L.Bean were imposing new restrictions on gun sales was shocking mainly because these stores aren’t universally known as firearm retailers. In fact, depending on where you live, you might not even have known that they sell guns.

(Indeed, the Huffington Post found a military-style rifle on the Sears website, which was being sold through a third-party retailer. A rep for Sears later told the Huffington Post: “The third-party seller in question violated our Sears Marketplace terms and conditions which specifically prohibit the sale of firearms. We immediately removed the prohibited merchandise from the website.”)

Can any retailer sell guns? If it is approved for a Type 1 federal firearms license — that is, a dealer’s license for rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers, and the like — yes. According to a rep for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), there are no restrictions on what types of corporations can sell guns, so if that vintage clothing boutique with all the good mom jeans wants to diversify its product assortment, it hypothetically could. The privilege of a Type 1 federal firearms license costs $200 and needs to be reupped every three years (by contrast, a dealer’s license for “destructive devices” like grenades will run a retailer $3,000).

There is one federal firearms license application for both corporations and individuals, which the ATF says is required for anyone who sells guns “as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.” Selling without a license could result in a fine, jail time, or both — though there are certain cases when the ATF says you don’t need a license to sell, as when individuals are liquidating a personal collection or selling off the occasional gun to pay for a newer model.

As of December 2017, the ATF reported that there were 56,199 entities with active firearms dealer’s licenses in the US. (That’s a slight dip from the same time in 2016, when 56,631 such licenses were in effect.) But that number doesn’t include the many retailers that sell hunting and shooting accessories, like Home Depot, which doesn’t sell firearms but does stock rifle and handgun cases, hunting blinds, ammo storage containers, and a variety of camouflage apparel.

The surge of outrage following the Parkland shooting, which left 17 dead, has spurred brands to act, but it remains to be seen how sustained their restrictions on gun sales will be. Yesterday, the Oregonian reported that a 20-year-old man has already sued Walmart and Dick’s for “unlawfully discriminating against 18, 19, and 20 year-old customers at all Oregon locations.” Retailers’ gun policies don’t just change in response to tragedy: Walmart has adjusted its gun assortment a number of times, having announced in April 2006 that it would no longer sell firearms in 1,000 of its more than 6,000 stores due to customer demand before adding guns back to a number of stores in 2011 to lift sales, and then getting rid of semiautomatic rifles like AR-15s in 2015 — again, it said, because of low demand.

Regardless of corporate involvement, the national debate on gun control isn’t going anywhere, not least with the March For Our Lives gun control rally in Washington, DC — organized by the survivors of the Parkland shooting — coming up on March 24th.