Two La Grande stores, two different paths taken in firearm policies and age restrictions.
Major corporations, including MetLife, Hertz and Delta Air Lines, recently have cut ties to the National Rifle Association. Walmart, Kroger, L.L. Bean and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced they will no longer sell guns to anyone younger than 21, according to an article by The Associated Press. Dick’s also banned the sale of assault-style rifles, a step Walmart took in 2015. And Dick’s CEO went even further by calling for tougher gun laws.
The Northwest-based retail chain Bi-Mart also announced it will raise the age restriction to 21 years old.
Those actions amounted to an act of defiance against the NRA and its allies in Washington who have vehemently opposed any ban on AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons or a higher age limit for gun purchases.
The local Bi-Mart declined an interview with The Observer due to restrictions on speaking to the press. However, a press release was issued by the corporate office in Eugene that spoke to the change.
“We support the responsible sale and use of firearms,” the release stated. “Since the day Bi-Mart was founded, we’ve always carried a mix of merchandise that supporting the shooting sports and hunting community. We’ve done this without selling assault type weapons. This style of firearm is not part of our current mix of goods and will not be in the future. We have never stocked or sold AK or AR platform rifles or bump-stocks and we do not stock high capacity magazines for these firearms. Our policies for firearm sales meet or exceed all Federal and State laws where we operate and currently follow all government age restrictions. We will continue to carry our current selections of items for the hunter and sport shooter.”
The press release continued by saying the company agreed with many policy makers and its peers that “increasing the age limit to 21, in order to purchase a firearm, is a step in the right direction. In support, Bi-Mart … will only sell guns and ammunition to those 21 or older who meet state and federal requirements for purchasing firearms.”
Phil Gillette, sporting goods manager at La Grande’s Ace Hardware, confidently said his store will not be following suit.
“I’d turn my membership back to them (if they pushed us to raise the age restriction),” Gillette said, referring to Ace Hardware.
In fact, he said the store has seen a definite rise in business since the discussion about restrictions began.
“People under 21 are coming in and buying the ARs,” he said. “They’re buying guns across the board too though.”
Gillette said he stands firm in his opinion on the right to bear arms.
“I’m a disabled vet,” he said. “I will buy what the Constitution allows me.”
Gillette said he’s “seen it all” when it comes to the ebbs and flows of the political debate on gun control. He’s had 25 years of experience selling guns and he’s seen sales increase every time there’s been a push for restrictions.
“Here we go again,” he said.
The debate over whether it is the business of corporations to weigh in on social issues goes back decades. In 1962, the celebrated economist Milton Friedman, in his book “Capitalism and Freedom,” argued that the only social responsibility of businesses is to increase profits and play by the rules.
But in recent years, U.S. companies have found it increasingly difficult to avoid being drawn into America’s culture wars.
Gillette said while the debate about guns is nothing new, he thinks the current division in the country makes this round of arguments feel different.
“I don’t think it’s been so separate before,” he said. “People are being led by their emotions. I get that, but it won’t solve any problems.”
Gillette takes his responsibility of selling guns to people seriously.
“I have the right to refuse service to anyone,” he said. “I have to be responsible as a dealer.”
He has refused the sale of a gun to people who smelled of alcohol.
“I go by what I physically see — if it doesn’t read right, then I’m not selling them a gun,” he said.
The recent changes in policy in major store chains come in response to the Florida students protests regarding stricter gun-control laws and more mental health resources for treating troubled peers after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkdale, Florida that killed 17 students.
And their decisions don’t represent much of a sacrifice from a financial point of view, according to the AP article. Most of Dick’s business, for instance, is in other types of sporting goods, such as sneakers and basketballs. Guns and ammunition are estimated to account for only 8 percent of sales.
Walmart has not released information on how much of its business comes from guns, but when the company stopped offering AR-15s in 2015, the big-box store chain cited declining profits.
The actions of those retailers will have very little actual effect on the availability of guns. It remains to be seen what effect the corporate reaction will have on the wider gun debate.
Gillette said most of his customers agree with his stance on gun control, but as a veteran he supports the right to voice their opinions, whatever they may be.
“I did put my life on the line to give you that right,” he said.