Gun-control advocates, including parents of victims of mass shootings, delivered nearly 300,000 signatures to a Wal-Mart store a short drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School Tuesday morning, calling on the nation's largest firearms seller to pull military-style rifles off its shelves.
"We're here today to ask Wal-Mart to stop selling military-grade people killers in our communities," said Lori Haas, whose daughter, Emily, was grazed twice in the back of the head during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. "They had promised to not sell these after the [federal] assault-weapons ban expired in 2004, and somehow their decision was reversed and they're now selling them in our communities across America, and we want that stopped."
The 291,141 signatures were gathered from online petitions set up by several organizations following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that killed 20 children and six women. Organizers printed out the names on sheets of paper and stacked them in a cardboard box.
With a cold, raw wind blowing Tuesday morning, Anthony Mercurio of SumOfUs.org hefted the box and walked it toward the entrance of the Wal-Mart store in Danbury. About 70 supporters walked behind him, with more than a dozen news photographers scrambling to capture the scene.
"We want to keep our streets safe and we want to avoid any tragedies like the one that happened just 15 minutes from here last month," Mercurio said as he walked through the parking lot. He was met by store manager John Ruggieri.
"We are here today to deliver almost 300,000 signatures," Mercurio told him, "voices from all over the country that are here to ask Wal-Mart to stop selling assault rifles and assault weapons in their store."
During the brief encounter, Haas told Ruggieri she shops at Wal-Mart and wants the retailer to play an active role in curbing violence.
"Our communities deserve to be safe from gun violence, and we want Wal-Mart to partner with us," she said.
"You're a good community member. You serve the community. Your customers shop there. They like you. We like you," she said. "But you have to join us in this effort and you have to be a willing partner and participant to help stop the gun violence."
Ruggieri said little during the mostly friendly exchange, but agreed to forward the signatures to Wal-Mart's corporate offices in Bentonville, Ark.
"I can't comment or anything of the sort. But I will promise I will get this to the people that will be willing to understand your issues and go forward from there," he said. "We support this community. We support this country. And we'll take this and move it up to the right people."
He then carried the box inside the store, where an associate sealed it with a strip of tape and Ruggieri wheeled it toward his office in a shopping cart.
In a statement, Wal-Mart said it has spoken with government officials and others in recent weeks about the issue of access to firearms. The company also noted that in 2008 it adopted a code for firearms retailers that includes videotaping all gun sales, requiring background checks for all sales, and placing firearms in locked cases.
"We have been purposeful about striking the right balance between serving our customers that are hunters and sportsmen and ensuring that we sell firearms in the most responsible manner possible," the company said. "For example, we don't sell handguns in the continental U.S.; we don't sell high capacity magazines as an accessory; we currently limit sales of MSRs to less than one-third of our stores, primarily where there are large concentrations of hunters and sportsmen; and we don't sell firearms online."
MSR — modern-sporting rifle — is the term preferred by many gun manufacturers and retailers for semiautomatic civilian firearms modeled on the military M16 rifle.
The Danbury store has never sold firearms other than air rifles and paintball guns, but weapons have become a growing part of Wal-Mart's business, with guns available at an expanding number of stores.
Two years ago, Jared Lee Loughner stopped at a Wal-Mart store in Tucson, Ariz., and loaded up on ammunition before heading to a political gathering where he fatally shot six people and injured 13 more, including former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The youngest victim was Christina Taylor-Green.
"She was 9 years old; a beautiful, intelligent little girl. And she was robbed of her life by a madman who shot her in the chest through the heart," her mother, Roxanna Green, said outside the Wal-Mart store. "I'm very saddened that Wal-Mart, a family department store, is selling ammunition and military style weapons that I really believe should be banned. We want to save lives and we don't want any more murders and senseless acts of violence."
Green said her husband is a hunter and she has guns in her home.
"As a gun owner, I don't believe in taking the guns away," said Green, who wore a ribbon and a button with her daughter's initials. "I just don't think people should own military-style assault weapons. And I think they should be banned."
Green, Haas and Pam Simon, an aide to Giffords who was shot in the arm and chest, traveled to Newtown earlier in the week and met with parents of the children killed as well as survivors of the Dec. 14 shooting.
"I feel their pain," Green said. "There will be a hole in my heart for the rest of my life. So I totally relate to them and that's why we wanted to come out here and comfort them and support them as much as we could."
David Macbride of Hartford traveled to Wal-Mart Tuesday and said the Newtown shooting that killed his friend Jimmy Greene's daughter, Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, was a turning point for him. Jimmy Greene is a prominent jazz musician and McBride, a professor of composition, knows Greene through the Hartt School at the University of Hartford.
"This was a call to action to me for this specific cause," Macbride said of gun control. "If not me, who? And if not now, when?"
Herb Krate of Danbury was driving by the protest at Wal-Mart when he decided to join it.
"I have 10 grandchildren, and I can't imagine them not coming home from school," he said.
Krate said government must restrict the types of guns available, as well as high-capacity ammunition clips. He also believes strongly in background checks for anyone buying a gun, including changing health privacy laws to allow the FBI to find out if a gun buyer has a history of mental illness.
"Are we going to stop all the nuts? No." Krate said. "But it's a start."
Adam Bink, director of online programs for Courage Campaign, one of the groups behind the petition, said he was pleased with Tuesday's event, but added, "we won't think it's a success until Wal-Mart takes assault weapons out of our communities."
He said that if the company does not respond, organizers are prepared to target more stores and put additional pressure on Wal-Mart executives.
"We're going to make sure that Wal-Mart realizes that its own customers want this to happen nationwide," he said.
Demonstrators are also calling on Congress to pass federal gun control legislation, and several expressed confidence that reforms would be enacted as a result of the Sandy Hook shootings, even as past efforts have failed.
"This is a tipping point," said Simon, the staffer shot during the attack on Giffords. "The innocent loss of lives, the lives of these tiny children in a beautiful town. If this does not call us to action, I do not know what will."