Some of the nation’s largest corporations are stepping into the gun control void, adopting new restrictions on sales in the absence of action by Congress and the White House.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, said Tuesday it would no longer sell certain types of ammunition, end all handgun sales and ask customers not to carry guns openly in its stores.
Kroger, another mega-retailer, quickly followed suit, urging its customers to leave their guns at home before shopping.
Gun reformers are quick to emphasize that the private-sector policy changes are neither a panacea for the nation’s gun violence epidemic nor a substitute for congressional action.
But they’re hoping the headline-grabbing reforms will alter the national dialogue surrounding gun rights in ways that convince other retailers to follow suit — and ultimately compel a reluctant Congress to adopt tougher firearms laws.
“It’s showing that corporate America, like the rest of society, is fed up with this persistent tragic problem, and they’re stepping up to the plate to see what kind of difference they can make,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at Giffords Law Center, a gun reform group founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
“They’re changing the political conversation and changing public perceptions of what can be done and what should be done.”
The dual announcements followed a spate of mass shootings in California, Ohio and Texas. The deadliest occurred in a Walmart store in El Paso on Aug. 3, when a gunman killed 22 people and injured two dozen more using a semi-automatic rifle.
The changes reflect a larger trend of major corporations — from Maine to Silicon Valley to Bentonville, Ark. — volunteering policy reforms designed to curb the scourge of gun violence afflicting the country, especially with President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) showing little urgency to take action.
Last year, in the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., outdoor retailers REI and Mountain Equipment Co-Op said they would no longer carry things like CamelBak water bottles, Bell bike helmets or Giro ski goggles — products made by Vista Outdoor, which has strong ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Delta and United airlines, as well as Hertz rental cars, said that same year they would no longer offer discounted rates to NRA members, while L.L. Bean raised its minimum gun-buying age to 21.
In May, tech giant Salesforce.com began warning business partners to stop selling military-style weapons or they won’t be able to use their e-commerce software.
And earlier this year, Dick’s Sporting Goods made a dramatic move, yanking guns off its shelves in 125 of its 730 stores nationwide. Critics warned that Dick’s would face a boycott from gun enthusiasts and Second Amendment advocates, but the retailer reported last week that its sales jumped more than 3 percent.
The Pennsylvania-based sports and outdoors retailer is still evaluating whether to end gun sales in all of its locations. But the latest Dick’s earnings report may be an encouraging sign for other retailers looking to make similar moves on gun and ammunition sales.
Companies’ recent gun policy changes aren’t necessarily happening organically. Often times, they are a result of pressure from individual customers or more organized online campaigns. Last year, for example, the First National Bank of Omaha responded to someone who had tweeted at the bank: “Please END your relationship with the @NRA. #NRABloodOnYourHands.”
“Customer feedback has caused us to review our relationship with the NRA,” the bank replied on Twitter. “As a result, First National Bank of Omaha will not renew its contract with the National Rifle Association to issue the NRA Visa Card.”
The NRA has responded forcefully. On Tuesday, it blasted Walmart for a “shameful” capitulation to “the anti-gun elites.” The powerful gun lobbyist group has been on the ropes in recent months, dogged by an exodus of top executives and allegations of financial malfeasance. But it still carries plenty of sway with Republican lawmakers and conservatives.
Activist groups, though, are showing no signs of letting up, promising new pressure tactics to bring more corporations on board. The consumer group SumOfUs, for instance, is targeting Visa with a petition drive designed to push the credit-card giant to flag “excessive, erratic gun and ammo purchases” and report them to law enforcers.
Jamila Brown, spokeswoman for SumOfUs, said corporations “have a moral obligation to ensure public safety.”
“Our goal is to ensure that it’s extremely difficult for these people to purchase guns,” she said Wednesday. “It’s two sides of the coin. We need really a marriage of corporations and legislation working together to ensure that our communities are safer.”
In an Aug. 27 letter to SumOfUs, Visa Vice President Stacey Zolt Hara said the company endorses legislative efforts to combat gun violence, but suggested Visa has little role to play because it does not have access to “an item-level view of consumer purchases.”
“For example, when a shopper makes a purchase at a sporting goods store, Visa does not know what was bought and, as a result, we cannot track or flag purchases of guns or any other product sold at that store,” Zolt Hara wrote. “We believe that asking payment networks to serve as self-appointed arbitrators of which legal goods can be bought sets a dangerous precedent of us acting as the moral authority on what controversial, but legal, purchases should be allowed or denied.”
For Walmart, the gun violence has become personal. Just days before the El Paso massacre, two Walmart associates were killed by a third associate at a store in Southaven, Miss. And days after El Paso, a 20-year-old man was arrested after walking into a Walmart in Springfield, Mo., sporting body armor and carrying a military-style rifle. He told authorities he was testing his Second Amendment rights.
On Sunday, an off-duty police officer took down a man who began shooting inside a Walmart in Hobart, Ind., after an altercation.
Walmart officials on Wednesday referred The Hill to a statement issued by CEO Doug McMillon in which he declared “the status quo is unacceptable” and that the policy changes were intended to keep customers, employees and the general public safe. He called on Congress and the Trump administration to “act.”
“We encourage our nation’s leaders to move forward and strengthen background checks and to remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger,” McMillon wrote. “We do not sell military-style rifles, and we believe the reauthorization of the Assault Weapons ban should be debated to determine its effectiveness.”
Democrats passed background checks bills through the House earlier in the year and have pressed McConnell to take them up. Following the summer’s mass shootings, the GOP leader said he would do so — but only if Trump is on board. The president, however, has been waffling all summer on gun legislation, befuddling lawmakers and the media as to what he supports.
Gun reformers on and off of Capitol Hill have long highlighted victims’ stories in arguing their case for tougher gun laws, to little avail. They’re hoping the voices of the corporate world will be more effective in breaking the dam of GOP opposition.
“What we do know is, quite often, Republicans are responsive to the business community,” said Brown, the SumOfUs spokeswoman. “And if these large corporations — Fortune500 corporations like a Walmart, like a Visa — are taking action, I think that is something that will actually force them to pay attention.”