Walmart will stop selling ammunition for military-style weapons and no longer allow customers to openly carry firearms in stores, becoming the latest big-box chain to bow to public pressure that has been building after a recent series of mass shootings around the country.
The world's largest retailer had been under mounting calls to respond to two deadly shootings inside its stores this summer in El Paso, Texas, and Southaven, Mississippi. The decision was a blow to gun-rights advocates, some of whom had been showing up at Walmart locations carrying guns on their hips in the hope that the retailer would not shift its policies.
Walmart in 2015 stopped selling the military-style rifles that have become common in mass shootings. But it continued to own a large slice of the ammunition market: about 20 per cent overall. That share now could fall to as little as 6 per cent, the company said.
Beyond such practical implications, the move also may be significant in that it reflects shifting cultural views of gun ownership, said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry & Astor, a public relations firm in New York.
"This is a major move," Allieri said. "This is not some left-leaning, coastal CEO sending a tweet or two. This is Walmart saying, 'This is how we're going to do business going forward. Take note.' "
While Walmart has locations in virtually every corner of the country, the Bentonville, Arkansas, company has long served more conservative regions where gun rights are cherished. In announcing the move, Walmart's chief executive Doug McMillon acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, referencing both a string of mass shootings - including one this weekend - and his own history of growing up in a hunting culture.
"In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again," he said in a memo to employees on Tuesday. "The status quo is unacceptable."
Walmart, which sells guns in about half of its 4,750 US stores, will continue selling long-barrel deer rifles and shotguns, as well as other firearms and ammunition for hunting and sports shooting, McMillon said. It will also continue to allow customers to carry concealed firearms at Walmart and Sam's Club stores, as long as they have proper permits. Executives did not offer details on how the changes might affect the company's financial performance.
There were already signs that Walmart's move was inspiring others to take similar action. Later on Tuesday, Kroger, the country's largest grocery chain, announced it would also be ending its open-carry policy in stores, a year after it stopped selling guns and ammunition at its Fred Meyers chain in the Pacific Northwest.
At Walmart, the decision comes after mounting pressure from gun-control advocacy groups, politicians and Walmart's own employees. About 40 white-collar workers in California walked off the job last month to protest its gun policies. E-commerce workers in Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn also urged the company to stop selling firearms and organized a Change.org petition. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had more than 142,000 signatures.
The protests followed a mass shooting in an El Paso Walmart that killed 22 people and wounded dozens of others. Days earlier, two Walmart employees were fatally shot at a store in Southaven, Mississippi, and a former employee has been charged in the shooting. And on Sunday, one person was shot and wounded at an Indiana Walmart, leading managers to evacuate the store.
Walmart has tightened its gun policies over the years. It stopped selling handguns in every state but Alaska in 1993. Last year, it raised the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, two weeks after 17 students and teachers were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
McMillon, who is a gun owner, said the company is also calling on President Donald Trump and members of Congress to advance "common sense measures," like more stringent background checks.
Gun control advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety applauded the retailer's decision and said it reflected a changing reality in which 94 per cent of Americans support universal background checks, and 61 per cent favour of tighter gun laws, according to a May poll by Quinnipiac University.
"As the largest brick-and-mortar retailer in the country, Walmart has its finger on the pulse of what Americans want," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. "This decision reflects a clear reality - Americans want to be kept safe from gun violence."
But in taking a stand, the retailer also angered some of its shoppers. The company made its fortune selling low-priced goods in red-state America, where many of its most loyal shoppers are hunters and gun-owners.
"It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites," the National Rifle Association said in a statement. "Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America's fundamental freedoms."
In prohibiting the open carry of firearms, Walmart joins a number of other big-name retailers, including Target, Starbucks and Chipotle.
Dick's Sporting Goods overhauled its gun sales policies last year after the Parkland shooting. Gun policy became a particular issue for its chief executive Ed Stack, who became even more concerned about firearms after learning that the perpetrator of that attack had once purchased a shotgun from a Dick's store.
A few weeks after the rampage, Stack announced that Dick's was pulling all military-style weapons from its stores and banning high-capacity magazines and "bump stocks" that could effectively convert semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. Stack also announced Dick's would not sell firearms to people younger than 21.
Dick's has never disclosed what share of its sales come from guns alone. Still, the company has continued to reevaluate its hunting business. In a 2018 pilot program, the company took all guns out of 10 stores and filled the empty space with products targeted for those markets, like sports team merchandise. Those 10 stores outperformed the rest of the chain and have continued to deliver, executives have said.
In March, Dick's removed all guns from 125 of its roughly 730 stores. Stack told The Washington Post earlier this year that the company would consider whether to expand that roster based on how those locations performed. In a company earnings call last month, Dick's President Lauren Hobart said it was too soon to gauge the strategy's success.
Presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, were among the Democratic candidates who had called on Walmart to change its gun policies in recent weeks. On Tuesday, they said they were heartened by the company's stance, but said they expected more.
"This is a good start - but it's not nearly enough," Warren said on Twitter. "Walmart can and should do much more. And we need real gun reform, now."
- Washington Post