In early September, Walmart—the nation’s biggest retailer—took an unprecedented political stance: it announced that it would stop selling the ammunition used in military-style assault rifles, discourage its customers from openly carrying guns in its stores, and call on Congress to increase background checks and consider a new assault rifle ban.

This bold statement followed the killing of 22 people in an El Paso Walmart store, in which the gunman used an AK-style rifle. In an open statement to associates, Walmart CEO Doug McMillan wrote, “We’ve 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. It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable.” 

Walmart’s decision has several far-reaching effects on the national gun control debate. In an email interview with The Politic, Representative Sean Scanlon, who serves Connecticut’s 98th legislative district, said the move underscored a rising consensus among the American public for stricter gun control measures. “Every time one of these horrific shootings occur, more and more people say ‘enough.’ The fact that we see giant retailers like Walmart, who are normally cautious about weighing into political debates, getting involved is indicative of the fact that we’ve reached a tipping point and that it’s becoming harder and harder to credibly oppose legislation such as universal background checks,” Scanlon said.

According to a survey conducted in September 2019 by the Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who say gun laws in the U.S. should be made stricter has increased from 52 percent in 2017 to 60 percent this year. Counting murders and suicides, almost 40,000 people died of gun-related violence in the United States in 2017, the highest annual total in decades.

Carrie Mannino ‘20, founder and co-president of the March for Our Lives chapter at Yale, is optimistic about Walmart’s recent decision. “I think it’s great that corporations and wealthy businesses are taking a stand,” she said. “It’s a good public statement, especially leading up to an election. In the past, we’ve had 100 CEOs write a letter to Congress demanding action on gun violence, and 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, but politicians aren’t working. That’s why support from corporations is good. I think cutting off supply from a major supplier changes the game.”

Mannino also noted how Walmart’s move followed the trend of many major retailers already taking action on gun violence. “After the Parkland shooting, Dick’s [Sporting Goods] stopped selling assault weapons. I think that corporations are recognizing their role in these incidents and being responsible.”

According to their September third announcement, Walmart expects to lower its market share of ammunition from around 20 percent to approximately six to nine percent. Roughly half of its over 4,750 U.S. stores sell firearms—accounting for about two percent of firearms in America. The majority of firearms sales occur through thousands of unaffiliated gun shops or gun shows rather than big retail chains.

Walmart’s move drew praise from gun control activists, and criticism from gun rights advocates such as the National Rifle Association (NRA). Shortly after Walmart released its decision, the NRA tweeted: “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.” Nonetheless, the retail chain currently seems to be avoiding the brunt of the economic blow: gun manufacturers, such as Vista Outdoors and American Outdoor Brands Corporation, are seeing their shares fall instead. 

However, it remains unclear as to whether or not the move will lead to actual policy change from Congress. “The NRA and their allies in Congress have been successful in blocking legislation for a generation,” said Scanlon, “but their power is waning, and that’s because even most gun owners support things like universal background checks and red flag laws, and simply saying ‘no’ to every and any proposal doesn’t work anymore. Unless you are in a deep red district, no politician can afford to ignore the fact that a majority of Americans are fed up with these shootings becoming the new normal, and they are going to vote accordingly until change happens.”

Mannino offered contrasting views. “I’m not confident that there will be change in our current Congress. Right now, politicians are more worried about money or staying in power rather than responding to the needs of their constituents. They aren’t paying attention to the human toll of these tragedies. Nothing will happen until we vote them out,” she said.

“In the meantime, however, companies can slow down their sale of ammunition,” said Mannino. “We can also attack this through local legislation. I know that the status quo is frustrating, but I’ve talked with people who have creative solutions to the problem. Through my experience in activism, we just have to keep working.” 

The magnitude of gun violence in America has garnered widespread international attention. In the wake of the August third El Paso shooting, headlines from Australia to Germany read, “White nationalist terrorism,” “America’s new civil war.” While companies like Walmart have taken up a role in trying to curb gun violence, countries such as Uruguay and Venezuela still warn their citizens traveling to the United States to beware of indiscriminate violence fueled by hate, racism, and discrimination. As a result, the United States’ response to mass shootings has implications for not only how its government is viewed by the American public, but how America is viewed by the rest of the world.

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