06/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sandbags and Machine Guns At Wal-Mart

Gun Sale Lawsuit in Peoria Opens Old Wounds

Wal-Mart took another bullet this week -- fired from its own gun.

The bad news came just as thousands of revelers at Wal-Mart's Annual shareholder's meeting were preparing to party down in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

ABC News reported that Wal-Mart is being sued by a husband in Peoria, Illinois who says his wife killed herself with ammunition sold to her by an untrained clerk at a Wal-Mart firearms department. Mark Johnson, the plaintiff, says his wife, Candace, bought bullets to load into his gun and shot herself last January. Johnson, a former Marine, admitted that he had a gun at home -- but says it had no bullets.

The lawsuit charges that Candace Johnson did not own a firearms ID card, and the Wal-Mart clerk should never had sold her the ammunition. The clerk, Christy Blake, was initially facing criminal charges, but the Peoria county State's Attorney's office dropped the charges, according to ABC News. Wal-Mart initiallly suspended Blake, but she is now back working at Wal-Mart.

Johnson's lawyer has taken aim at Wal-Mart, not the clerk. "(Candace) had been a mental patient," Davis told ABC. "In the state of Illinois, they're not allowed to get firearm ammunition or firearms, and that's for the purpose of protecting them and society at large. So that's why the lawsuit is filed. They (Wal-Mart) dropped the ball unfortunately there's a dead person."

Wal-Mart has apparently admitted that its clerk did not receive training for ammunition sales, which is company policy. Gun sales training was a major talking point for Wal-Mart in April of this year, when the company linked arms with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Wal-Mart became a prominent member of the Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership. The retailer promised to implement new gun sale rules at roughly one-third of its American stores. But the Partnership did not save Candace Johnson.

Wal-Mart said it would create a new record and taping system for guns that are subsequently used to commit a crime. If the gun purchaser returns to Wal-Mart to buy another firearm, the system would warn the clerk not to make the sale. The system would also allow the police to view the tapes as part of a crime investigation. Wal-Mart pledged it would institute tougher background checks for its "associates" who work in the firearms department. They must have skipped over the Peoria store.

Wal-Mart has had its own troubled background with guns. In January of 2005, the California Attorney General's office revealed that Wal-Mart had violated the state's gun laws 2,891 times over a three year period. Wal-Mart illegally sold a gun to someone in California 2.6 times everyday from 2000 to 2003. The violations included selling to 23 people prohibited from owning guns, selling guns before waiting for a criminal background check, failing to identify the buyer's identity, and allowing people to make "straw purchases" on behalf of another person prohibited from owning guns.

Wal-Mart violations of gun laws were so lax, the state created a special training program for Wal-Mart workers. That training seems to have misfired. State agents found so many violations at Wal-Mart stores, that the company eventually stopped selling guns altogether in California.

Under the terms of the settlement with the California Attorney General, Wal-Mart paid $14.5 million to the state, and spent at least $4.5 million to comply with state and federal regulations, plus $3 million for a public relations campaign promoting firearm safety and to encourage other gun dealers to do what Wal-Mart failed to do: check the ages of people buying guns. The California AG said that compliance with the laws was necessary to keep "ex-felons, mentally ill and other prohibited people" from getting weapons. But now the old wound is open again, and Wal-Mart is in the headlines for selling bullets to a mentally ill woman in Peoria.

I wrote last April that if the California lawsuit was any indicator, similar violations could be happening all across the nation at thousands of Wal-Mart stores, and people who are not supposed to be buying guns, are walking out of superstores armed with Wal-Mart guns and ammunition. At the store level, where press releases are just so much corporate confetti, there is no reason to believe that sales clerks are prepared to deal with customers like Candace Johnson.

It will be instructive to see how Wal-Mart's legal defense plays in Peoria. Guns seem to be a major part of the Wal-Mart culture. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told a gathering of businessmen in Chicago three years ago, "One of the things that can happen when you get under attack is that you actually can close up. We call it at home, being very sophisticated, that you pull out the sandbags and the machine guns." It looks like Wal-Mart is going to need a lot of sandbags and machine guns to defend itself in Peoria.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters, and has helped communities fight big box sprawl for 15 years.