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Walmart’s Gun Decision Is Less Political Than It Looks

Rolling back product lines. Photo: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Much of the coverage of Walmart’s decision to step back from the guns and ammunition business has focused on how the company is (or is not) aligning itself with its customers’ political and social views. I get why people reach for this frame, since it’s the right one for looking at a lot of the polarizing choices corporations have made lately: Nike’s ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick; Gillette’s choice to urge its customers against toxic masculinity; Equinox’s efforts to distance itself from one of its owners’ political activities, and so on.

But I think this story is different in an important way, and that focusing on the political frame will lead to a misunderstanding of why Walmart made the choice it did.

I don’t think this policy change was mostly about Walmart wanting to send a signal to some customers that it’s aligned with their values and not part of the problem with gun violence in America, though that was probably part of it. I think it’s more about wanting to send a signal to customers and employees that they’re not going to get shot at Walmart.

It’s worth considering what this company and its employees have been through in recent weeks. There was a horrific mass shooting at one of its El Paso stores. As CEO Doug McMillan noted in his announcement of the new policies, there was a workplace shooting at a store in Mississippi just days before that, where a former employee killed two current ones. And then in the aftermath of these shootings, the company has been having to deal with antisocial persons who have been open-carrying their rifles around Walmart stores just to show they legally can, scaring the crap out of Walmart employees and shoppers and often leading them to call the police.

After the El Paso shooting, the Washington Post quoted Erin Rivkind, a customer-service employee at a location in California, who said employees are scouting hiding places in case of a mass shooting and that “we’re all afraid we’re going to die.” Managers and executives are surely hearing these concerns internally, and companies tend to want to make sure their employees aren’t afraid to come to work, especially in a tight labor market like this one, where they can relatively easily get a job somewhere else.

I’m sure people’s personal attitudes about members of the public flaunting rifles in their vicinity are strongly correlated to political attitudes about gun control. But they are not the same thing as political attitudes about gun control. A customer who’s scared to go to Walmart because of the risk of gun violence (or an employee who thinks about quitting for this reason) isn’t necessarily the sort of person who tries to punish companies for having the wrong values. They may just want self-protection.

The most relevant policy change in this regard is Walmart’s announcement that it will discourage customers from open-carrying firearms in its stores, even where that is legal, unless they are qualified law-enforcement personnel. It’s worth noting this is not precisely a prohibition, but a “respectful request.” This makes me suspect the impetus for this change is more about employee perceptions of safety than customer perceptions. Many customers (who don’t wish to open-carry) might prefer to be told open-carrying is prohibited outright, but I understand why Walmart doesn’t want to roll out a policy that would obligate its employees to confront armed customers.

The company says signage about its new open-carry policy will be coming in the next few weeks, and I’ll be interested to see exactly what it says. The CEO’s letter says they will have “a very non-confrontational approach” in discouraging open-carry. If this move encourages open-carry activists to test Walmart, the company may need to take a more aggressive approach.

Ending its sale of handgun ammunition (and of handguns themselves, in the one state where Walmart was selling them: Alaska) does less to directly address the fear of shootings in Walmart stores. I’m sure this choice was partly driven by a decision that selling firearms-related products not suited to hunting was damaging to the company’s reputation among a public where voters who favor gun control are increasingly politically activated around the issue. But taking a step to reduce the association between Walmart’s brand and nonhunting guns may also reduce the perception that the store is a risky place full of armed people.

It’s worth noting that, in July, before the El Paso shooting, Walmart announced it would stop selling firearms altogether in its New Mexico stores, in response to a new law in that state requiring gun retailers to allow members of the public to bring firearms to their stores to obtain background checks for private gun sales. That is, Walmart would have had to allow customers to bring assault rifles and handguns to its store for transactions even though it’s made a choice not to sell those kinds of firearms. At the time, Walmart told CBS News it didn’t want to have people bringing these kinds of guns to its stores even for lawful transactions, because it might upset customers.

A lot of the commentary on Walmart’s moves away from the gun business has characterized Walmart as principally a rural retailer. Conservatives have groused and liberals have cheered that even this Red America company is souring on guns. But Walmart is too big to be principally rural, since it’s America’s largest retailer and only 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas. Like every other giant corporate or political institution in America, Walmart is accountable foremost to the suburbs. Its moves reflect an acknowledgement that, in suburban America, guns are becoming more trouble than they’re worth for the company — if not for their political implications, then for direct perceptions of safety at Walmart.

In one respect, this reflects a tactical mistake on the part of gun-rights activists. The sharp drop in violent crime since 1990 took the wind out of the sails of a once-strong gun-control movement that passed the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban. Reduced fear of being shot among the public was the best thing gun-rights activists had going for them. But the movement’s countenance of open-carry activists, who want to show people that a high-powered rifle can be carried anywhere, whether or not it should — even in a Walmart store days after a mass shooting — has the effect of increasing the salience of gun violence and increasing support for measures to curtail guns, whether those measures are public policy or corporate policy.

Walmart’s Gun Decision Is Less Political Than It Looks