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Leonard Pitts: Nation on tenterhooks after another mass shooting

By Leonard Pitts

In 1879, on the road leading into Dodge City, there stood a sign. “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited,” it said.

As recounted in the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America” by Adam Winkler, the gun control ordinance was the first law passed when the city was organized in 1873. Nor was Dodge unique. Many other western towns, Wichita and Tombstone among them, had similar laws.

The statutes don’t seem to have been particularly controversial.

Though Dodge City was, by reputation if not always in actual fact, one of the toughest and most lawless places on the frontier, cowboys had no problem walking unarmed into its brothels and saloons. Yet in 2019, many of us feel the need to take guns into Walmart.

Worse, they’re allowed to do so under permissive “open carry” laws which, in most states, give people the right to bear handguns and even long guns in public. But now Walmart is fighting back. Sort of.

Last week, the giant retailer announced that it was “respectfully requesting” that people not bring guns into its stores. This, on the heels of last month’s racist mass shooting — 22 people died — at a Walmart in El Paso. Other companies, including Kroger, CVS and Walgreens, quickly followed suit. The New York Times notes that still more companies — Starbucks, Target and Chipotle among them — already had such policies in place. Most used the same word Walmart did to couch their requests: “respectfully.”

To say “it’s about time” is to understate. Years of living in the shadow of massacres has left us a nation on tenterhooks, 330 million people all sharing the same case of PTSD. One recalls the panicked stampede in Times Square last month when motorcycles backfired. One observes that children are being sent back to school this year with bulletproof backpacks. And one is glad businesses are willing to “respectfully request.”

But they must do more.

The idea of a cowboy walking without his revolver down the wooden sidewalks of Tombstone stands in rather pointed contrast to that of some accountant waiting in line at a suburban Starbucks with an AR-15 slung across his back. One can imagine no more vivid illustration of the absurdist dystopia this country has become as a result of the NRA, its GOP toadies and their conviction that all people must have access to all guns in all places at all times.

If you’re sitting in a movie theater or standing in a checkout line and some stranger walks by carrying a military grade rifle, do you feel safer or do you start looking for the exit? The answer is obvious: this is not a scenario that instills a sense of security. One would have to be drunk, stupid or Republican to think otherwise.

So it’s good to see American business taking a stand American lawmakers won’t, the marketplace of commerce reaching a consensus the marketplace of ideas can’t. That said, this polite pleading is not enough. Asked about Walmart’s policy, even David Amad, a gun rights activist in Texas, told the Times, “They are ducking the issue.”

Which they are. Walmart and other retailers seek a path of least resistance that will relieve them of the responsibility of taking a stand. But no such path exists: sides must be chosen and lines must be drawn, because this is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. And death and death and death. As a private entity, Walmart, like CVS, Starbucks and Kroger, can simply say, Do not bring guns into our stores. They have that power and they must use it. The majority of us who want gun sanity in this land must require them to. They’ve made their “respectful request.”

We must answer with an impatient demand.

Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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