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Wal-Mart Workers On Pistol Patrol As Law Lets Texans Tote Guns

By Lauren Etter and Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg News (TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — Managers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Texas have a new task to add to their list of duties: asking customers if they have a permit to carry a handgun.

To comply with state liquor rules, the world’s biggest retailer sent a written notice last month to stores that sell alcohol, telling managers to ensure that customers who openly carry firearms under a new law have licenses. Cashiers or door greeters who see someone with a gun are to alert the highest- ranking employee, who is to approach the customer and ask to see the paperwork.

“We do try to ensure that people have a licensed firearm,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick. “We are giving direction to our store employees to ask for a license as our management sees appropriate.”

The notice was sent out in anticipation of the Lone Star State’s open-carry law, which went into effect Jan. 1. It made Texas the nation’s most populous state to allow citizens with a permit to carry handguns openly in a holster.

The measure has put retailers in a quandary, forcing them to take sides in one of the nation’s most fraught debates. Gun- rights activists are boycotting stores that forbid firearms, saying people shouldn’t be punished for exercising their rights. Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are shunning stores that allow customers to bear arms, saying no one should have to shop where they feel unsafe.

Stuck in the middle are retailers loath to risk losing business from either side. Dozens of stores and restaurants across Texas, including San Antonio-based HEB Grocery Co., one of the state’s largest food retailers, have banned openly carried guns. That’s incurred the ire of activists who have vowed to shop elsewhere. Others, such as Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., have chosen not to ban firearms carried legally, inviting the scorn of gun-control advocates promising a boycott of their own.

Wal-Mart’s position is unusual because many of its stores sell beer and wine. That’s put the company in the cross-hairs of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which prohibits unlicensed handguns in establishments that sell such products for off-premises consumption. An establishment can lose its liquor license if it “knowingly allows” a person to bring an illegal firearm on the premises, said Chris Porter, spokesman for the agency.

Previously a shopper could have been walking the aisles with a concealed weapon — legal in Texas for two decades — and store clerks wouldn’t have known. Under the new law, the only way to ensure compliance is to ask a customer with a gun for a permit.

“Now that it’s open carry, that creates a new space that you have to cover,” said George Kelemen, chief executive officer of the Texas Retailers Association. Stores like Wal-Mart want “to make absolutely sure that the message they convey is, ‘We welcome your patronage, but we sell alcohol and we don’t want to risk losing the ability to do that.”’

Some companies are trying to walk a fine line by publicly opposing guns in their Texas stores, while stopping short of posting state-issued signs that serve as a legal notice that firearms are prohibited. The coffee giant Starbucks Corp. has requested that customers who aren’t law-enforcement personnel refrain from bringing firearms of any kind into stores, but hasn’t issued a ban, according to spokeswoman Jaime Riley. Target Corp. has also asked customers not to carry guns openly, even though it hasn’t displayed the signs prohibiting the practice, said spokeswoman Molly Snyder.

That balancing act isn’t sitting well with gun-control advocates. The Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has begun targeting stores that have publicly opposed the open-carry law but haven’t displayed the official signs prohibiting it. The group is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that advocates for stricter laws. The ex-mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.

“The strongest statement businesses can make for their customers’ safety and care is getting that sign up,” said Alexandra Chasse, a spokeswoman for the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action.

Wal-Mart, which itself sells rifles and shotguns, says it’s asking customers to show a pistol permit only in Texas stores that sell alcohol. When it comes to allowing guns in stores nationwide, the company says its policy is to follow all local, state and federal laws, said Nick.

Still, its stance has begun to trouble gun-rights activists as they walk into their local Supercenter with pistols on their hips.

“I find it offensive,” said C.J. Grisham, president of gun- rights group Open Carry Texas, who has heard from members who shop at Wal-Mart that they have been asked for permits. “I don’t want to be treated suspect by a place that I’m shopping at.”

(Etter reported from Austin and Pettypiece from New York)

©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Walmart via Wikimedia Commons


Knives Are The New Guns In Lawmakers’ Second Amendment Expansion

By Lauren Etter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

AUSTIN, Texas — State lawmakers are bringing knives to the gunfight.

Expanding the battle over the right to bear arms, U.S. legislatures that relaxed laws after the gun lobby’s decades-long push are now loosening restrictions on switchblades, dirks, daggers, and poignards.

The charge is being led by a group whose leadership includes a wilderness survival entrepreneur, a National Rifle Association board member and a “Joy of Cooking” co-author who travels with a seven-inch Santoku knife for slicing thyme-stuffed pork loin roasted on a spit over a campfire.

Called Knife Rights, the group claims support not only from Republicans, but also from urban Democrats concerned that the laws are used to target blacks and Latinos. Since 2010, it has helped roll back bans in nine states and is lobbying legislatures in a dozen more.

“We call it the second front in defense of the Second Amendment,” said Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs and sole paid lobbyist for the Gilbert, Arizona-based group.

On April 29, a Texas legislative committee heard testimony on a bill that would repeal a ban on daggers, swords, spears, and the Bowie knife, a blade inspired by a defender of the Alamo.

“I don’t see knives posing that big of a danger to the public,” state Representative Harold Dutton Jr. (D-TX), who sponsored the bill, said in an interview. “Now that we’re going to let everybody have a gun, I think we ought to set knives free.”

Dutton, a black Democrat from Houston, sees knife laws as a threat to civil rights.

“It is another one of those things that helps establish probable cause for a policeman to stop you,” he said.

Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose April death in police custody ignited riots, was arrested after police said they noticed a knife inside his pants.

Law enforcement officers are less enthusiastic about ending restrictions.

“There’s a time and a place for knives,” said Sean Mannix, police chief in Cedar Park, Texas, and chairman of the Texas Police Chiefs Association’s legislative committee. “When you start talking about weapons with 12-inch blades like bayonets and things like that, there’s just no good reason for people to carry that in public — and it’s alarming to folks.”

The bill remains in a House of Representatives committee.

Almost half of U.S. states regulate switchblade knives, whether by a limit on blade length or an outright ban, according to Knife Rights. Many of those also regulate other types of knives deemed dangerous. Cities have their own regulations, leaving a patchwork of rules that critics say confuses knife owners.

Knife Rights argues that Americans have a right to slice.

The group began in 2006 after Doug Ritter, a manufacturer of survival kits, and Ethan Becker, who oversees the cookbook his grandmother wrote in 1931, found common ground over a belief that bans were anachronistic.

Becker, a Paris-trained chef, has had a lifelong fascination with knives, designing and manufacturing them. He agreed to fund the group.

Four years later, Ritter met Rathner at an NRA board meeting. Rathner, a board member for the gun-rights group, had recently pushed Arizona’s “constitutional carry” law, which let citizens tote firearms openly without a permit. A decade earlier, he had encouraged the state to enact a so-called pre-emption law that prohibited cities from enacting their own restrictions.

“I said, ‘Let’s try to enact knife pre-emption in Arizona and see if we can make it stick,'” Rathner said.

It stuck: In 2010, then-Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first such measure.

That same year, they persuaded New Hampshire to lift its ban on switchblades and other knives. In 2011, they got Utah to enact a pre-emption law.

“From there, we put together a strategy to start hitting as many states as possible,” Rathner said.

Knife Rights, which reported taking in $217,000 in 2012, receives support from individual donors and manufacturers such as Oregon-based Benchmade Knife Co. Its board includes Peter Brownell, chief executive officer of Brownells Inc., a closely held firm based in Montezuma, Iowa, that’s one of the nation’s largest suppliers of gun accessories and ammunition.

Thanks to the group, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin lawmakers are considering lifting or loosening bans on knives. Michigan, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont, are considering pre-emption bills.

The right to bear knives isn’t a familiar concept even though millions own blades that could be considered illegal for cooking, whittling, or working in the garden.

They’re the second-deadliest weapon behind guns in the U.S. In 2013, almost 1,500 people were killed by “cutting instruments,” according to figures from the FBI. Almost 8,500 were killed with firearms.

Blades are among the oldest weapons, with some dating to the Stone Age. Many modern restrictions are rooted in Reconstruction and were designed to keep weapons from newly freed slaves, according to David Kopel, a Denver University law professor who has studied the Second Amendment as it relates to knives.

After the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story” featured switchblade-wielding teenage gangs rumbling under a highway, Congress in 1958 banned interstate commerce of the knife and several states enacted their own bans.

In 2014, Knife Rights successfully repealed Tennessee’s prohibition on knives with blades longer than four inches that were carried with “intent to go armed.” Becker, who lives south of Knoxville in the Smoky Mountains, was relieved to see it go.

The chef often carries a traveling cooking bag that contains a whisk, tea towels, a zester, and his favorite knife. He deploys his utensils to prepare recipes on the road.

Before Tennessee’s repeal, Becker said he could have been arrested for carrying his beloved Santoku.

“Knives are just too damn useful for too many people, and to me it’s all just so silly,” he said.

Photo: TranceMist via Flickr

Crumbling Alamo Spurs Texans To Revive Monument Faded By Neglect

By Lauren Etter, Bloomberg News (TNS)

SAN ANTONIO Limestone is missing from the facade, tree roots push up through sidewalks and windowsills are rotting on the only building generations of Texans have been told never to forget.

“We want people to think about the Alamo again,” Rebecca Bridges Dinnin, its director, said in her San Antonio office, sitting beneath the red, white, and green flag of the Texas Revolution.

While Texans are no strangers to tattered public works, with billions of dollars needed for roads, parks, and state buildings, the Alamo’s decay is goading business leaders and public officials to act. They’re seeking millions to revive the fort, which has been the state’s symbolic heart since a bloody 1836 defeat there rallied Texans to wrest independence from Mexico.

On March 12, Texas fired the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a private organization that has managed the site, after waning gift-shop sales and allegations of mismanagement. State Senator Jose Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, wants to ask voters to approve spending as much as $250 million to restore the complex. A new endowment board, which includes billionaire Red McCombs, met this month to consider ways to boost fundraising for the Lone Star State’s most famous monument.

“Almost all Texans look at San Antonio as a second home and that’s because of the Alamo,” said McCombs, the 87-year-old auto-dealership founder who helped start the Clear Channel Communications radio-station chain.

During a tour, Richard Bruce Winders, the Alamo’s curator, pointed to the eroding foundations of the chapel, the main attraction, as throngs of umbrella-bearing visitors took shelter from the rain. A study released in February by researchers at Texas A&M University revealed that almost three inches of the limestone facade had been eroded by water damage since 1960.

“What happens here, down at the bottom level, is when it rains real hard the rain splashes up and hits here,” he said, pointing to areas where the rock had worn away. “It takes years and years for that to happen, but it does happen.”

The Texas General Land Office, which is run by Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is asking the Legislature for $1.5 million for the Alamo’s two-year budget and an additional $5 million for preservation projects, such as to replace rotting beams, upgrade storm drains, caulk windows and add wireless Internet service. That’s up from a total of $1.5 million during the prior two years.

The request would use $620,000 to pay for temporary storage of former Genesis drummer Phil Collins’ collection of Alamo memorabilia and artifacts, which includes Jim Bowie’s knife and one of Davy Crockett’s rifles. The British musician, who was made an honorary Texan by the Legislature, agreed to donate the collection as long as the Alamo builds a museum to display it, said Dinnin, the Alamo’s director.

“Texans need to see some of these things,” said Dinnin.

Originally called San Antonio de Valero Mission, the Alamo was built in the 1700s by Spanish missionaries seeking to convert the natives to Catholicism.

It was later turned into a military garrison. In 1836, it became the site of a 13-day siege during an attack by Mexican troops led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The defeat inspired soldiers who went on to win victory over Mexico with the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo.” Texas joined the U.S. in 1845.

The management of the site was given in 1905 to the Daughters of the Republic, a genealogical society limited to women who can trace their roots to Texas’ independence.

The group came under scrutiny as upkeep lapsed. Because of a slide in gift-shop sales, which almost entirely sustained the Alamo for decades, it had a $225,000 deficit in 2011.

That year, the Legislature voted to give control to the Land Office, which oversees oil royalties, education funds, and public beaches. The Daughters of the Republic continued to oversee the daily management through a contract with the state.

In 2012, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who became governor in January, issued a report criticizing “organizational dysfunction, failures to prioritize historic preservation, and internal disagreements” at the site. The Daughters of the Republic’s contract was canceled last week.

Ellen McCaffrey, president of the Daughters of the Republic, said the group is being unfairly blamed.

“The state Legislature and the governor and all the officials of the state for decades paid no attention to the Alamo,” she said. “They ignored it.”

McCombs, the billionaire on the endowment board, said he and other supporters want to restore the Alamo complex to reflect its original scale. That would require San Antonio to turn over a plaza that covers much of the Alamo’s 4.2-acre footprint.

“A lot of the downtown area’s gonna have to be blown down in my opinion,” said McCombs.

Lori Houston, who helps oversee development for San Antonio, said it’s premature to discuss any changes.

Today a busy street runs through the plaza, where shops hawk trolley rides, t-shirts, and coonskin hats.

“The Alamo over time has become a big letdown for people,” said Gary Foreman, an Alamo historian who’s been pushing to restore the site to its 1836 battleground image. “Instead of asking ‘why are you here’ and ‘how can we make it more rewarding’, we just say ‘what are we gonna sell ’em while they’re here.'”

Photo: Rob Gross via Flickr