Michael T Duke is making a killing from the gun boom
While murder and suicide numbers soar, the Wal-Mart CEO watches his supermarket giant capitalise on booming weapons sales
Michael T. Duke sells more guns than anyone else in America. The sale of guns is among the only 'up-ticks' in the American consumer culture, with monthly figures varying from 42 to 28 per cent. In the past three months, in a wave of murder being linked to the economic crash, 57 people have been shot dead in nine mass-killings, mostly involving families.
Putting this information together inspires a portrait of Duke - he generally prefers plain 'Mike' - as a colossus of capitalism somehow combining the all-American hat-and-boots of John 'Duke' Wayne and one of those fellers with a gut straining against his belt buckle, standing at the cash register with Colt AR-15s and Smith and Wesson specials hanging on display behind him.
Well, not quite. Since February, Duke has been the new president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. He is a slender, well-groomed business man in an innocuous single-breasted suit, his hair trimmed tight around his ears; the type who would be entirely at home managing a High Street store. Instead he runs the world's biggest store, which has now taken over from the near-bankrupt General Motors as the world's biggest corporation.
Wal-Mart, started by the avuncular Sam Walton in hokey old Arkansas, is of course known everywhere for being the biggest retailer of just about everything, with the cheapest prices, and worst of taste. What is often overlooked, however, is that Wal-Mart also sells more guns than any other outfit on earth, except, possibly, the Red Army when stoking up a convenient guerrilla war.
There are no signs that Duke has any plans to change that. Guns, like booze, are a recession-proof product. In the first quarter of this year, stocks in Smith and Wesson rose 165 per cent, and Sturm Ruger, 102 per cent.
This is important, because for a couple of months last year even Wal-Mart was watching a falling or level sales curve, and Duke warns that the recession is going to be long and hard. "It's not a 'V' recession, where we're just going to bounce and come back," he says. "There's still a lot of stress in the economy."
His use of the word 'stress' is interesting, because that is just the word favoured by commentators, cops and psychologists fretting over links between mass murder, mass unemployment and massive debt.
A newspaper editorial trotted out the statistics 57 dead, 6 million newly unemployed, 280 million guns in private hands and asked: "Random numbers? No. They all figure in the wave of mass murder that grips this country."
It noted that the beserkers had either committed suicide or been shot by the police, so details of their motives were few. "But nearly all had lost jobs and were struggling to hold onto what they had. All of them were armed to the teeth."
Was this printed in Manhattan, or bleeding-heart San Francisco? No: it led the opinion page in the Tennessean.
Good Wal-Mart country, Tennessee. And in Wal-Mart, guns sell at the usual bargain prices. There are cowboy-type revolvers for $350, and 9mm pistols for $250 and up. But then look at the racks of hunting rifles: simple, bolt action weapons with plastic stocks and slugs big enough to drop a deer at three hundred yards, yours for $150.
Sales are up because now is the time to bear arms, not give them up
The National Rifle Association ('Guns don't kill people, people do') and the man behind the gun counter will point out that Wal-Mart sells no 'combat-style' semi-automatic weapons. Theirs are for hunting and 'self-protection' only.
What's more, ever since Wal-Mart was fined $14.5 million for violating gun sale laws in California in 2004, the company claims to video-record every sale and log all index numbers for identifying weapons used in crimes.
The problem is, that is irrelevant. Every single weapon used in this wave of mass murders, and every known weapon used in the rising tide of gun suicides in the last six months, has been a 'domestic' hand gun, shot gun or hunting rifle.
Will things change? No way: a Gallup poll showed support for gun controls at 29 per cent, the lowest for 50 years. Sales are up because now is the time a citizen needs to bear arms, not give them up.
And why should Duke tell Wal-Mart to start selling butter instead of guns? We know very little about him, but what we do know is that he got the top job for two reasons.
The first is that the company needed a new man at the helm because with President Obama in the White House they know his predecessor's notoriously hard line on union membership is not going to wash.
And secondly, as the head of Wal-Mart's international division, taking stores to India, China and around the globe, Duke sold $100 billion worth of Wal-Mart bargains in 2008, making more profit than anyone at home.
He was born in Georgia, and came to Wal-Mart after rising up the retail ladder at Macy's. He serves dutifully on the University of Arkansas Board of Advisors, and, with Orwellian aplomb, on the Executive Board of Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.
We have no idea what kind of rifle he uses to hunt the fabled Arkansas razorback hog, or even if he does hunt the razorback hog. But we do know from his official Wal-Mart biography that Duke and his wife, Susan, have two daughters and a son, and that "they are active in their church and community".
That's all right then: he must be praying that all those guns end up in the right, safe hands. ·
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