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Halted gun sales infuriate customers

BATON ROUGE, La. -- As fearful residents rush to stock up on guns, Wal-Mart, one of the region's biggest suppliers, abruptly stopped selling them at 40 stores scattered throughout the Gulf Coast.

The move infuriated some Wal-Mart customers in this fiercely progun region, some of whom said the big chain left them without protection as the violence increased after Hurricane Katrina.

''We had a lot of chaos," said Donald Goff, who was sitting in a white pickup outside a local Wal-Mart store. ''They should be open to sell guns. They should not be doing this to people."

Smaller stores are eagerly filling the void. Spillway Sportsman, near Baton Rouge, sold 172 guns in one three-day period after the hurricane, when normally it might sell 15. One mother came in to buy her first gun after she and her two children, ages 9 and 12, witnessed a slaying on the streets of New Orleans, said Scott Roe, Spillway's owner.

''Her comment was, 'I was a card-carrying, antigun liberal -- not anymore,' " Roe said. ''She said, 'I'm going back home, and I am not going back unarmed.' "

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Karen Burk, attributed the company's decision to pull guns from the shelves to ''some very fluid circumstances and changing situations" in the region. She did not elaborate far beyond that. ''We're trying to take care of our customers and community and be a responsible retailer at the same time," Burk said.

In addition to its decision to stop gun sales at 40 stores, Wal-Mart also has placed severe restrictions on gun sales at some other stores in the area. Executives ordered the guns removed from their glass display cases and put into a vault instead. At those stores, customers who want to purchase a gun must select it through a catalog.

Burk said the retailer has no date set to return guns to the stores.

Wal-Mart's decision to stop gun sales also earned it praise from several customers, who said police would protect them from any trouble.

''Why can't we get along? This is a time of crisis," said Mike White of Kenner, La. He said people who need guns for legitimate reasons, such as hunting, would not be buying now.

Gun sales have become a hot-button issue for Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer. Filmmaker Michael Moore blasted the store's gun sales in his documentary ''Bowling for Columbine." In January, the company agreed to pay $14.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by California's attorney general that accused it of violating state gun laws.

But in post-Katrina Louisiana, a lot of anger erupted when the retailer took guns off its shelves.

Isiah Smith said looters stole cars in his neighborhood and broke into homes as he fled from Laplace to Baton Rouge to escape the storm.

He said Wal-Mart should not have stopped gun sales. ''People have to protect themselves," he said.

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