Want to Buy a Gun? Try Your Local Pharmacy

If cigarettes seem out of place on a drugstore shelf, how about firearms?

A European acquaintance once pointed out to me, with a mix of condescension and wonder, “The United States is the only nation where you can buy cigarettes in a pharmacy.” Not that Europeans have been leaders in the anti-smoking movement. Quite the contrary; they’re still the world’s heaviest smokers. But part of their heritage is professional autonomy. As the German pharmacists' association website explains:

In Germany, only pharmacists may operate a pharmacy. This principle guarantees the proper pharmaceutical supply of the population. The ban on third-party and multiple ownership stresses the personal responsibility and liability of self-employed pharmacists in the healthcare sector. It separates the pharmaceutical supply from companies' exclusive intention to maximize return.

As recently as 2007, there was strong resistance to filling prescriptions in supermarkets and other chain retailers. Yet Europeans can’t resist the cornucopia that is the big American general-merchandise establishment. Le Drugstore in Paris, found in 1958, has a staff of 180 and sells everything from cosmetics to small luxuries, alcoholic beverages, and gourmet meals. And it now includes an actual pharmacy, too.

There’s still one specialty of some American pharmacies that Europeans haven’t dared to offer: the gun and ammunition department. I first encountered this in the 1980s, when I arrived for an academic meeting in Reno, Nevada, and sought a toothbrush in a large drugstore across from the airport. Upon entering, I was stunned to find a well-stocked firearms shop taking pride of place.

The CVS/Caremark decision to stop selling tobacco products by October 1 reminded me of my Reno excursion, and I searched online for chain and independent pharmacies with Federal Firearms Licenses. There are dozens, mainly in the South and West, though a listing doesn’t necessarily mean that the establishment is currently selling guns.

While Walgreens and other chains may follow CVS out of tobacco, some independent pharmacists are expanding into firearms as insurance reimbursement schedules make it difficult to compete against national vendors. Nichols Pharmacy near Corpus Christi, Texas, advertises “Guns & Drugs” on a billboard. The gun department of Ray’s Pharmacy in Mansfield, Texas promises “A Very Unique Shopping Experience” on its website. The McCaysville (Georgia) Healthmart Pharmacy is a Class III Dealer. (That means it's permitted to sell National Firearms Act (NFA) weapons, including machine guns.)

The national champ in this category may be the Western Drug and General Store in Springerville, Arizona, founded in 1934. It was deemed the best gun store in the state by Arizona Outdoorsman magazine. According to a local newspaper article, “customers come from all over Arizona and from Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas just to buy at the store.”

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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