People bring flowers and pray at a makeshift memorial outside the Walmart where 22 people were killed four days earlier, in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 7, 2019. The nation’s largest retailer said it would stop selling ammunition for certain short barrel rifles and for all handgunsImage: Celia Talbot Tobin/The New York Times
Walmart stepped forcefully into the national gun debate Tuesday, saying it would stop selling ammunition that can be used in military-style assault rifles, would discourage its customers from openly carrying guns in its stores, and would call on Congress to increase background checks and consider a new assault rifle ban.
One month ago, a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, putting pressure on the company to respond to the wave of mass shootings across the country. It is the nation’s biggest retailer, and a large seller of firearms and ammunition.
Walmart said it made the announcement after weeks of discussion and research about how best to respond. The decision is in line with public opinion polls that favor more gun controls, and advocates, gun violence victims and others have increasingly called for action.
The company said that after “selling through our current inventory commitments,” which could take several weeks, it would stop selling certain short-barrel rifle ammunition and all handgun ammunition.
The retailer, whose sheer reach has reshaped communities nationwide, largely avoids publicly wading into politics. That made Walmart’s statement Tuesday even more notable. It called on leaders in Washington to enact stronger background checks to “remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger.” The company said it also supported a new debate over an assault rifle ban.
“As we’ve seen before, these horrific events occur and then the spotlight fades,” Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said in the statement. “We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.”
Supporters of gun rights sharply rebuked Walmart’s decision. The National Rifle Association predicted in a statement that Walmart would lose business to other retailers, “who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms.”
“The strongest defense of freedom has always been our free-market economy,” the group added. “It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites.”
Walmart several years ago stopped selling the type of assault-style rifle that was used in the El Paso shooting, but the company will now cease selling effectively any ammunition that could be used in those weapons.
Firearms are not a particularly vital business for Walmart. But the company’s evolving policies signal a broader business strategy.
Probably more than any other retailer, Walmart serves Americans of every socio-economic and cultural stripe, which means that any public policy stance the company takes will inevitably alienate many. And while it remains a dominant force in rural America, Walmart is betting much of its future on growing its e-commerce business in coastal cities and suburbs, where potential shoppers tend to hold more liberal views, including on the need for more gun restrictions.
With 1.5 million employees, Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, most of them the cashiers and managers in its network of 4,000 stores. However, the company is also trying to build its online business to compete with Amazon by recruiting younger engineers and developers, who are attracted to companies that profess social values that reflect their own.
“Any decision that a company that is that big and that ubiquitous makes is going to please some people and upset others,” said Aron Cramer, chief executive of BSR, a nonprofit group that advocates for social responsibility in business. “It is extremely hard not to take action when people are dying at one of your stores.”
McMillon, who became chief executive in 2014, has tried to bridge these various constituencies. He is a Walmart lifer who began working for the company as a warehouse employee when he was in high school. In 2017, he was critical of President Donald Trump’s comments after the violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. But he has also emphasized his roots growing up in Arkansas, noting on Tuesday that he was a gun owner himself and acknowledging that the new policies may rankle many customers.
Walmart has taken steps to restrict gun sales during his tenure — like videotaping the point of the firearms sale and raising the minimum age to buy a gun to 21. But most of those moves have been done with little public fanfare, while also often avoiding the broader topic of gun violence. In 2015, for example, the company said its decision to stop selling assault rifles was due to sluggish demand.
Since the shooting in El Paso — a few days after two people were fatally shot by a disgruntled worker at a Walmart in Mississippi — the company said it had undertaken a “thoughtful and deliberate” process in formulating a response to the violence.
Shortly after the El Paso shooting, Walmart removed signs for violent video games in its stores, but gun-control groups and several Democrats running for president called for more substantive measures.
On Tuesday, gun-control advocates celebrated Walmart’s announcement as evidence that most of the country supports more firearms restrictions. “They have their pulse on what Americans want, and the Senate should take note,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
McMillon said the company would focus its gun business entirely on supplying rifles and ammunition for hunters.
“We have a long heritage as a company of serving responsible hunters and sportsmen and women, and we’re going to continue doing so,” he said.
Walmart described its new limits on ammunition sales, which includes no longer selling handgun ammo, as “dramatic.” The decision is expected to reduce the company’s share of the nation’s ammunition market to as low as 6%, from 20%. The company said last month that it accounted for about 2% of the nation’s firearm sales.
The retailer said it would no longer sell handguns in Alaska, its last state with such sales. Walmart stopped selling handguns in every other state in the 1990s but continued to sell handgun ammunition across the country.
The effort to discourage customers from openly bringing firearms into stores, which other companies, like Starbucks and Target, have tried in recent years, could prove challenging and divisive. Store workers will have to be trained how to request that customers not openly carry their weapons, and the laws can vary by state.
The new policy stops short of banning open carry. Rather, Walmart said it would begin “respectfully requesting” that customers not bring their weapons along while they shop, unless they are concealed.
How the company, which as a private entity has the right to restrict the possession of guns inside its stores, intends to enforce the new policy is murky. The spokesman said employees would take a “nonconfrontational” approach. In some cases, the store may say nothing to customers with weapons if they seem innocuous. If customers or employees feel unsafe around someone openly carrying a gun, the store will contact the authorities, Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, said during a call with reporters.
Shortly after Walmart’s announcement, the grocery chain Kroger said it too was requesting that its customers not carry weapons into its stores.
Regarding open carry in Walmart’s stores, McMillon cited “multiple incidents since El Paso, where individuals attempting to make a statement and test our response have entered our stores carrying weapons in a way that frightened or concerned our associates and customers.”
“These incidents are concerning and we would like to avoid them,” he added.
Some experts said the new policy might have the opposite effect, inspiring supporters of gun rights to openly bring firearms into Walmart stores.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see people force a confrontation and try to ruffle Walmart’s feathers,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Gun Fight: the Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The store employees are the ones who will have to solve the problem without getting themselves shot.”