WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 Sep 2015 | Commentary | News

On Assault Weapons, States and Private Companies Lead the Way

By Clay Boggs

On August 26, Wal-Mart, the U.S.-based retail giant, announced that it would no longer sell semiautomatic assault weapons. This move is a major blow to the arms industry in the United States, which has invested heavily in developing and promoting assault weapons, as the Violence Policy Center explained in its 2011 study The Militarization of the Civilian Firearms Market. It is also a step forward for public safety in the United States, where these weapons have been used in high-profile shootings, including the 2012 killing of twenty schoolchildren and six adults at Newtown Elementary School, and in Mexico, where they are the weapons of choice for dangerous criminal organizations that terrorize communities and openly confront Mexico’s security forces.

See also: Gun-Running Nation: How Foreign-Made Assault Weapons are Trafficked from the United States to Mexico and What to Do About It

It is not entirely clear why exactly Wal-Mart made this decision. What is clear is that Wal-Mart has done a good thing. Taking assault weapons off the shelves of the leading bricks-and-mortar retailer in the country proves that action to reduce gun violence is possible, despite congressional inaction at the federal level. (Indeed, gun violence prevention advocates have also had success in pressuring major chains to prohibit guns on their premises.)

President Obama has said that the failure to pass gun laws has been the biggest frustration of his presidency. But there is no need to wait for Congress to act; Wal-Mart’s move is only the latest effort to reduce gun violence in the United States even as Congress stalls. In addition to private companies, many state governments have taken matters into their own hands. Since Newtown, 37 states have passed laws to strengthen gun regulations, and, despite the lapse of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, seven states now have their own assault weapons bans.

There is also more that the president can to better enforce the laws that are already on the books. As WOLA and the Violence Policy Center noted in a recent report, Gun-Running Nation, current law provides the president legal authority to restrict the importation of firearms that are not “particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes,” without the need for congressional approval. Two former U.S. presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, recognized that imported semiautomatic assault rifles are both lethal and popular among criminals. They therefore conducted reviews of firearms imports, in 1989 and 1998, in an attempt to tighten import restrictions. Following each review, the firearms industry adapted its practices to comply with the letter of these regulations while defying the regulations’ spirit and continuing imports.

The Obama administration should develop and implement an annual review of guns currently imported to determine which guns are truly sporting weapons and which ones are not. This would help keep those trying to enforce laws one step ahead of those who are putting dangerous guns in the hands of criminals, both in the United States and in Mexico.