Two weeks ago, when Kmart officials announced that their stores would stop selling handgun ammunition, they described the decision as a shift in "merchandising strategy" that had been in the works for some time.
It was just a coincidence, they suggested, that Kmart executives had met with filmmaker Michael Moore and three survivors of the Columbine shootings a day before the decision was announced.
But for the three students who confronted the retail giant about its ammo sales, there was nothing coincidental about it. After their long and inconclusive meeting with the Kmart brass, the trio headed for a Kmart store to see if a minor could buy handgun bullets without scrutiny -- and they say they succeeded in purchasing hundreds of rounds, in violation of company policy and federal law. Although the incident received scant mention in the national press (and was virtually ignored by the Denver media), it may have been a deciding factor in the company's quick about-face.
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"We felt we got blown off when we met with them," says Brooks Brown, who joined Mark Taylor and Richard Castaldo in the lobbying effort. "We'd spent, like, six hours there, and we didn't get an answer from them, just this stupid press release that said they always follow policy. So we decided to test their policy."
"They said there was a limit to what you could buy," adds Castaldo. "I guess their policy doesn't work."
Ammo bought at Kmart played a deadly role in the shootings at Columbine two years ago; the night before the massacre, eighteen-year-old killer Eric Harris cajoled a friend, 22-year-old Mark Manes, into buying two boxes of 9-millimeter cartridges for him at a local Kmart. Federal law prohibits the sale of rifle and shotgun ammunition to anyone under the age of eighteen, and a buyer must be 21 to purchase handgun ammo. However, many kinds of handgun ammo can also be used in rifles; an eighteen-year-old can purchase such bullets if the seller believes the ammo is to be used in a long gun. (Manes, who was sentenced to six years in prison for illegally selling gunman Dylan Klebold a TEC-DC9 semi-automatic handgun, was recently released to a Denver halfway house.)
Although Manes's purchase was perfectly legal, Kmart has been under pressure from gun-control activists to stop selling handgun ammunition. In 1999, six months after the Columbine killings, Rosie O'Donnell quit her position as a celebrity endorser for the company over the gun flap. Other critics have questioned the appropriateness of a family store dealing in firepower when many of its own clerks are minors.
So when Michael Moore approached the Columbine students about lobbying the company, they were happy to oblige. Castaldo and Taylor were among the first ones shot outside the school by Harris and Klebold; Castaldo lost the use of his legs, while Taylor has endured numerous surgeries and still has a bullet lodged near his aorta. Brown narrowly escaped the massacre when Harris told him, shortly before the shooting started, "I like you. Go home."
The beefy Moore has made a career out of dogging and embarrassing corporate America in gonzo documentaries such as Roger and Me and on his television program, The Awful Truth. His Kmart visit was part of his latest project, a feature-length study of "guns and fear in America," tentatively titled Bowling at Columbine. (Klebold and Harris took an early-morning bowling class in which they reportedly shouted Nazi slogans and talked about shooting jocks.)
Brown says the Columbine crew met with three Kmart executives on June 27 for several hours at the company headquarters in Troy, Michigan. "They asked us to tell our stories," he recalls. "It was depressing as hell. They said they'd get back to us in a week."
Moore and Taylor then visited a Kmart store in Troy while Brown and Castaldo waited outside. According to Rehya Young, one of Moore's producers, eighteen-year-old Taylor showed a student ID to two teenage clerks and proceeded to buy out the store's stock, amounting to more than 700 rounds of ammunition -- a wide range of .22 hollowpoints, 9-millimeter and .38 cartridges and other types. "Mark got some pretty serious stuff, including a lot of hollowpoints," adds Castaldo.
Kmart has declined to comment on the Columbine team's shopping spree but has said it will "fully investigate this alleged incident." The next day, though, the group returned to company headquarters and held a press conference to announce its "blue-light special" purchases. When no one from the company came out to respond, Moore went into the lobby and addressed the security camera, trying to persuade Kmart CEO Chuck Conaway to face Moore's cameras.
"Come on, Mr. Conaway, be a man," Moore exhorted. "Please have the decency to come down and talk to these children who were crippled by bullets bought at your store."
Conaway declined to appear, but a company spokeswoman came out and read a prepared statement. The company would "phase out" the sale of handgun ammunition nationwide within the next ninety days, she said.
Moore told reporters gathered outside that he was "totally, totally stunned" by the quick capitulation: "We were just getting ready to go back to the airport, having lost to another insensitive corporation."
Both the decision and the face-saving explanation about a new "merchandising strategy" have been ridiculed by gun-rights groups. Gun Owners of America, a Virginia-based lobbying group that claims more than 300,000 members, described the corporate retreat as "a politically correct move" to appease "the Million Misinformed Mommies" and other gun-control advocates.
"If that is their marketing strategy, that could explain why the company is in such financial difficulty," says Larry Pratt, GOA's executive director. "Wal-Mart is happy to continue selling ammunition because it's making them money. For Kmart to say it isn't, that isn't very credible."
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Pratt doesn't think Kmart's move will have any effect on the availability of ammo for responsible handgun owners; in fact, his organization is planning to open a "cybermall" on its Web site featuring retailers who sell ammo online. As he sees it, the underlying issue in gun and ammo sales is a web of regulation that penalizes the law-abiding while having little or no effect on criminals' access to firearms.
"The problem at Columbine wasn't bullets that had been sold illegally, or any gun, but that there was a monopoly of guns in the hands of the bad guys," Pratt says. "The law says having a gun for self-defense is illegal in school, but like the saying goes, you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. It's wicked to tell people they've got to go into 'crime-free zones' where the criminal has a monopoly on firepower."
But for Taylor and Castaldo, who still carry pieces of Kmart merchandise in their bodies, the company's departure from the handgun-ammo business is a victory of sorts. Castaldo says he's surprised that a big corporation could be so easily shamed into changing its policy.
"I think it's good they agreed to stop selling [handgun ammo]," he says. "We'll have to go back and check in three months and see if they really did it."