Shared from the 9/4/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

GUN DEBATE

Walmart retreats from some ammo sales

Retail giant’s move may shift market to smaller shops amid policy debate

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Newsmakers/Hulton Archive

Walmart announced Tuesday that it will end sales of ammunition for handguns and assault-style rifles, a blow to gun-rights advocates. The retail chain will also restrict the open carry of weapons in its stores.

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Celia Talbot Tobin / New York Times

“We will never be the same,” the company said after shootings in El Paso, above, and Mississippi.

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Daniel Mears / Associated Press file

Several sporting goods chains, such as Cabela’s, continue to sell assault-style rifles. Dick’s Sporting Goods, however, banned sales of assault rifles, and Walmart has adjusted its gun policy.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, on Tuesday said it will stop selling ammunition for handguns and assault-style rifles and ban the open carry of firearms inside its stores in response to recent mass shootings, including in El Paso and West Texas last month.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based discount retailer said it will no longer sell ammunition such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber bullets that can be used in handguns and high-capacity magazine clips on military-style rifles. The company also plans to discontinue handgun sales in Alaska, marking its complete exit from the pistol market.

Walmart also will no longer allow customers to open-carry firearms in all Walmart and Sam’s Clubs stores, allowing only law enforcement officers to carry guns in public view. Customers who have concealed-carry permits may continue to bring firearms into Walmart stores, as long as they are hidden from public view.

“In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like this will happen again,” Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said in an open letter to employees, referring to mass shootings. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

Walmart has been facing increasing pressure to change its gun sale policies in the wake of the El Paso mass shooting that killed 22 shoppers at alocal Walmart. A few days prior, two Walmart employees were killed by another worker at a store in Southaven, Miss.

The company expects the shift will reduce its share of the ammunition market to between 6 percent and 9 percent, down from around 20 percent currently.

“We know these decisions will inconvenience some of our customers, and we hope they will understand,” McMillon said. “As a company, we experienced two horrific events in one week, and we will never be the same.”

Walmart’s continued retreat from firearm sales will likely boost local gun shops, which are experiencing declining gun sales under President Donald Trump. Kyle Harrison, general manager of Houston-based Top Gun Range, said he expects a small uptick in ammunition sales.

“Anytime you have any major player exit the market, you see a shift,” Harrison said. “Everyone is going to see an uptick, but it’s going to get spread across all distribution channels.”

Taking a stand

Walmart — which operates stores in urban, suburban and rural America — made a measured move, halting some firearm and ammunition sales while allowing others and banning open carry while allowing concealed carry of guns. At the same time, the retailer, whose founder Sam Walton was an avid quail hunter, made a decision that appeased no one, gun enthusiasts and gun safety advocates alike.

“Walmart is caving in to politics,” James Hillin, owner of West Houston-based Full Armor Firearms said. “It ain’t going to change none of these shootings. Bad people do bad things. None of these laws and policies are going to change that.”

Heidi Hess, a co-director with CREDO Action, a San Francisco-based progressive group advocating for gun safety measures, was also unhappy, but for different reasons.

“Walmart is trying to protect themselves from public and employee backlash by ending sales of ammunition and ending open carry,” she said in a statement. “Any step that doesn’t include ending gun sales full stop isn’t enough to show a true commitment to ending gun violence and mass shootings.”

Walmart’s action was followed late Tuesday by an announcement from Cincinnati-based Kroger, which last year stopped selling firearms and ammunition at its Fred Meyer stores in the Pacific Northwest, that it too would ban open carry of firearms in its stores.

“We recognize the growing chorus of Americans who are no longer comfortable with the status quo and who are advocating for concrete and commonsense gun reforms,” Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, said in astatement.

In an increasingly polarized country, Walmart, Kroger and other retailers often feel compelled to take a stand on even politically fraught issues such as guns, said Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University’s business school. Companies weigh political optics, economic impact and the brand’s culture when making business decisions that can invoke both celebration and condemnation from consumers, he said.

“Customers expect companies they buy products and services from to take a stand on political issues,” Dholakia said. “Companies can’t stay neutral and do nothing.”

Incremental changes

Walmart several years ago stopped selling handguns and assault-style rifles such as the AR-15, raised the age limit for firearm and ammunition sales to 21 years old and required background checks on all firearm sales. The retailer also video records its firearms section and only allows certain trained employees to sell guns.

Walmart and Kroger join Starbucks, Target and Wendy’s in banning open carry within their stores. For Walmart, the shift comes after several incidents where people entered its stores carrying weapons “in a way that frightened or concerned our associates and customers,” causing panic and calls to police, said McMillon, Walmart’s chief executive.

Walmart isn’t just taking action within its stores. McMillon said he will send letters to the White House and Congress, urging national leaders to strengthen background checks, remove weapons from people deemed harmful to others and to consider the merits of reauthorizing the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

Walmart’s shifting policies on gun sales will put pressure on other retailers to follow suit. As the world’s largest retailer, competitors are bound to take notice, Dholakia said.

“When a market leader takes a stand, it’s going to have an impact on other companies’ decision-making,” he said. “Every manager is now thinking, ‘We need to take a stand, in favor or against it.’”

Last year, Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines from its stores and required all gun buyers be at least 21 years old after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Earlier this year, Dick’s announced it would stop selling firearms and ammunition at 125 of its 700 stores nationwide.

Academy Sports + Outdoors, which sells pistols, rifles and ammunition, did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment regarding Walmart’s decision. The Houston-based retailer last month declined to comment on the matter after the mass shooting in El Paso prompted Walmart to call for a national debate on gun legislation. paul.takahashi@chron.com twitter.com/paultakahashi

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