photo by Steve Snodgrass
They are simple requests: No flash photography. No shirt, no shoes, no service. And now, no openly carrying guns in retail outlets.
One month after a gunman killed more than 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Walmart Inc. announced that it will ask customers not to openly carry guns into its 4,700 U.S. locations, or its Sam’s Club outlets, regardless of a state’s open carry laws. Walmart will also stop selling ammunition for handguns and short-barrel rifles, and will no longer sell handguns in Alaska. (The retailer already did not sell handguns in any other state.)
In a memo to employees, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon wrote, “It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable.”
Kroger has also requested that customers not openly carry guns in its supermarket locations. Law enforcement officers are exempt from the policy. Kroger had already stopped selling firearms and ammunition at its Fred Meyer stores, which previously carried them. Both Kroger and Walmart have taken the opportunity to call on lawmakers to take action to strengthen background checks.
This is not to say both retailers are going all-in on gun control. Walmart will allow customers with permits to carry concealed weapons. It will also continue to sell long barrel deer rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition for these firearms. McMillon said that the store’s policies are meant to balance the needs of hunters and other sport shooting enthusiasts with the safety of customers and employees. (It may be a sign of its success that anti-gun activists called for the company to go further while gun rights advocates criticized the decision for going too far.)
In the days following Walmart and Kroger's announcements, several other retailers followed suit, including CVS Health, Walgreens, and Wegmans (a supermarket chain mainly focused in the Northeast). These businesses are joining others that have instituted similar policies in the past few years. Target, Starbucks, Disney Resorts and a variety of other businesses big and small ask that customers refrain from carrying firearms on their property. Other retail and restaurant chains should take notice and follow suit. While state laws vary, in general businesses can ban people from bringing certain items into their locations, regardless of the item’s nature. It’s perfectly legal to keep a dog as a pet; that doesn’t exempt you from a store’s “no dogs allowed” policy.
As I wrote in this space a little more than a year ago, the private sector has a long history of encouraging social change in times of political gridlock. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, many companies dropped special privileges they formerly offered to members of the National Rifle Association. At the same time, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style weapons. Walmart decided to stop selling bump stocks after the major shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. Both Walmart and Dick’s raised the minimum gun purchasing age to 21 last year. And the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (better known as CalPERS) divested its stakes in gun manufacturers following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When the 535 members of Congress can’t enact firearm change in this country, the private sector can and should step in.
Businesses are not governments. They can set and enforce policies for what goes on within their walls, but employees can only do so much. Many stores, including Walmart and Kroger, have framed their policies as requests, rather than requirements. It is not hard to understand why. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz observed when announcing his business’s policy, “enforcing a ban would potentially require our partners to confront armed customers, and that is not a role I am comfortable asking Starbucks partners to take on.” In some places, patrons who ignore signs forbidding firearms may face fines or other penalties, but rules vary between states. In the absence of legal repercussions, it falls in part to fellow customers and patrons to support and enforce these policies.
There have been 19 mass shootings in the United States in 2019 alone. Restricting ammunition sales and keeping guns out of public places cannot solve the problem by themselves. But they are productive steps that show someone is taking the problem seriously, even if it is not our lawmakers. With 535 evident cases of political paralysis in Washington, it is time for more than 327 million private citizens to make a public stand.