Written by Michael Corkery
Walmart stepped forcefully into the national gun debate Tuesday, saying it would stop selling ammunition that can be used in military 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.
The moves come exactly one month after a gunman walked into a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, and killed 22 people. The tragedy put pressure on the nation’s biggest retailer — and a large seller of firearms and ammunition — to respond to the wave of mass shootings across the country.
Walmart made the announcement after weeks of discussion and research about how best to respond. The company said that after “selling through our current inventory commitments,” which could take several weeks, it would discontinue the sale of certain short-barrel rifle ammunition and all handgun ammunition.
The move could be a risky one for Walmart, with possible backlash from customers and gun rights advocates. But it also had the potential to spur other companies to action. Shortly after Walmart’s announcement, grocery chain Kroger said it, too, was requesting that its customers not carry weapons into its stores.
Walmart stopped selling the type of assault-style rifle that was used in the El Paso shooting several years ago, but the company will now cease selling effectively any ammunition that could be used in those weapons. Uncharacteristically for a company that normally avoids publicly wading into political issues, Walmart also called on leaders in Washington to implement stronger background checks to “remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger.” The company said it also supports reviving an effort to pass 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 a statement. “We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.”
The announcement brought a sharp rebuke for gun rights supporters. 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.”
With 1.5 million employees, Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, most of whom are working as cashiers and managers in its network of 4,000 stores. However, the company is also trying to build out 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 Crammer, president of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying organization that represents many of America’s largest companies, including Walmart. “It is extremely hard not to take action when people are dying at one of your stores.”
McMillon, who became CEO 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 still in high school in Arkansas, where the company is based. In 2017, he was critical of President Donald Trump’s comments after the violent rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. But he has also emphasized his rural roots, noting Tuesday that he was a gun owner himself and acknowledging that the new policies may be unpopular with 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 purchase a gun to 21. But most of those moves have been done with little public fanfare, while also often avoiding the 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, which came 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 pulled 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, an advocate for gun control measures.
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,” McMillon said.
Walmart described its new limits on ammunition sales, which also includes no longer selling any for handguns, 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 move to discourage customers from openly bringing firearms into stores, which other companies, like Starbucks and Target, have taken in recent years, could prove challenging and divisive to implement. Store workers will have to be trained how to request that customers not openly carry their weapons into Walmart locations, and the laws can vary by state.
The new policy stops short of banning open carry in the company’s stores. Rather, the company said it would begin “respectfully requesting” that customers not bring their weapons along while they shop, unless they are concealed.
How the company intends to enforce the new policy is murky. The spokesman said employees would be taking a “nonconfrontational” approach.