Walmart Takes a Shot At the Status Quo

“It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon declared in a memo to employees on Tuesday, referring to a change in the store’s gun sale policy after 22 people were killed in its El Paso branch early in August.

The giant retail chain said it will stop selling handgun ammunition and “short-barrel rifle ammunition,” such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber, which can also be used on assault-style weapons, after selling all its current inventory. Walmart will also stop selling handguns in Alaska, the only state where it still sells them. And Walmart will request that customers no longer openly carry guns into its 4,700 U.S. stores, or its Sam’s Club stores, in states that allow open carry.

While the lawmakers in Washington will likely produce some form of gun-control legislation in the near term, a private-sector leader has now acted to partially disarm itself.

But of this it was said by James Madison, that “if men were angels, there would be no need of government.”

That is to say, it cannot be expected of gun merchants to transform themselves into angels overnight and the market to disappear just like that. If Walmart won’t sell assault weapons, others will; Walmart accounts for only about 20 percent of the market. The ongoing carnage caused by mass shootings cries out for tougher laws to force all the sellers to stop being an ordnance corps for insane killers. Walmart itself has enjoined Congress to enact new gun control laws.

Walmart’s decision to scale down its sales of guns and ammunition was welcomed in most quarters, even if it wasn’t hailed as a courageous or visionary step.

Democratic presidential aspirants Senator Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke (who, as everyone now knows, comes from El Paso), New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Senator Bernie Sanders — the socialist from Vermont — all said it was a step in the right direction but more is needed, both from Walmart, its rivals and the government.

The Los Angeles Times belittled it as a “small risk, big statement” move, and cited analysts who said the cutback “won’t hurt its bottom line.” In fact, had Walmart failed to react as it did, it could have hurt the company much more in the long term, alienating shoppers and shareholders who are pro-gun control. “Walmart understands that even if they suffer a short-term loss or even a backlash [from gun customers], what they are gaining in community support might make up that difference for their shareholders,” as Wendy Patrick, a business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University, told LAT.

The National Rifle Association berated Walmart for a weak-kneed response: “The strongest defense of freedom has always been our free-market economy. It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites. Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms. The truth is Walmart’s actions today will not make us any safer. Rather than place the blame on the criminal, Walmart has chosen to victimize law-abiding Americans. Our leaders must be willing to approach the problems of crime, violence and mental health with sincerity and honesty.”

Whatever one may think of the NRA’s worldview, they do have a point about the context of the decision. Walmart’s gun control epiphany did not occur in a vacuum; the executives were not struck with a moral revelation on a mountaintop. It took the massacres in the Walmart branch in El Paso and elsewhere, as McMillon acknowledged — as well as a barrage of criticism from anti-gun groups, politicians and ordinary outraged citizens, which he only vaguely acknowledged by saying, “We’ve also been listening to a lot of people inside and outside our company as we think about the role we can play in helping to make the country safer.”

Indeed, it is likely that had there not been so much pressure on the company to change, the change would have been smaller, if at all.

Putting aside the question of nationwide gun laws, though, the case of Walmart has to be examined on its own. One might ask: Why is a department store selling any kind of gun in the first place?

The answer, unfortunately, is that if gun displays in the middle of a shopping center for families seem bizarre, that’s only because you don’t live in the heart of the gun culture, where buying a rifle and ammo is as much a routine home purchase as buying a power lawnmower or a kitchen clock. The fact that a store sells food, medicines and toys for children alongside instruments of death attests to the culture of violence which, more than anything else, spawns mass shootings.

The bottom line is that Walmart should stop treading the fine line between pleasing gun customers and offending anti-gun customers, and stop selling ammunition and guns altogether. These things don’t belong in a department store. The signs are that more people, especially in places like El Paso that have been ravaged by shootings, are coming to understand that.