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Walmart’s Small Move on Guns Could Have a Big Impact

Sarah Halzack

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Days after a mass shooting at one of Walmart Inc.’s stores in El Paso last month, the nation’s largest retailer offered a cautious and decorous response. CEO Doug McMillon offered prayers for the families of those affected and pledged the company would be “thoughtful” about how it responded.

Now, a month later, the CEO’s thoughts have morphed into company policy — and that policy promises to enmesh Walmart ever more deeply into America’s politics of guns.

Walmart said Tuesday it is asking customers not to openly carry firearms into its stores in states where doing so is permitted. It also said it would stop selling handgun ammunition and certain other types of ammunition. The company expects that move will reduce its market share in the ammunition category from 20% to between 6% and 9%, making it a significantly smaller player.

These are perfectly sensible steps, consistent with the gradual approach Walmart has taken in recent years to become more restrictive in its firearm policies. In 2015, for example, it banned sales of assault-style rifles. Last year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, it moved to raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm.

And yet, by continuing to sell hunting rifles and other gear for sport shooters, the retailer is not fully backing away from gun culture or the shoppers who embrace it. Its new policy allows Walmart to walk a fine line.

The latest changes are undoubtedly incremental. Yet Walmart’s massive scale — its $514 billion in annual revenue and 165 million weekly U.S. shoppers — means that its policy will have an impact far beyond the walls of its big-box stores. For example, the retailer moved to raise its minimum wage several years ago amid an intensifying competition for labor. This past July, retail wages hit a 15-year high, in part because Walmart spurred industrywide change.

So it’s possible Walmart’s new policies will help on the margins to curb gun violence, and may push its competitors to adopt similar changes.

Walmart’s statement also suggested it is looking for change on gun policy issues beyond the ones it is implementing on its own. McMillon said the company encouraged federal lawmakers to strengthen background checks and to “remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger,” which sounds like support for so-called red-flag laws. He also reiterated a previous call for Congress to debate a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban — a nuanced position that stops short of expressing support of such a law.

If this statement ends up being the last forceful thing Walmart says on this issue, it will probably be just a footnote in the national conversation about gun safety. But if it is a sign that Walmart is now prepared to speak out more often, it could prove to be a turning point in the debate. One test will be whether it continues to call attention to the issue even after this latest spasm of violence has faded from the headlines.

Washington has repeatedly failed to act on this issue, despite polls showing a growing share of Americans favor more restrictive gun laws. Maybe lawmakers would feel more serious pressure to act if Walmart were more willing to throw around its big-box muscle.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Halzack at shalzack@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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