Sam Walton probably never expected his mega retail brainchild to be in the middle of a raging American gun control controversy when he opened his first store in 1962, but that is exactly where Walmart has found itself. In the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last month, as well as other mass shootings in recent years, Walmart is now playing a perhaps unexpected role in the surging debate over gun policy.
The one-stop superstore giant has sold guns in select Sporting Goods section off and on for years, and as the country’s largest retailer, it is now being called upon to pave the way for other gun sellers in terms of sales policies and controls.
Walmart representatives attended a White House meeting last Thursday to discuss gun control policies as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s gun violence task force, according to CNN Money. After initially declining the invitation, the company responded to pressure from critics saying that the retailer needed to hear the various perspectives discussed at the conference in order to dictate its own gun policies.
Part of the reason the company received such scrutiny over its initial refusal to attend the talks may lie in the fact that it sells guns in nearly half of all its stores. CNN Money reports that approximately 1,800 of Walmart’s 4,000 stores sell guns, including 1,200 stores that sell semiautomatic rifles, the type of weapon used in the Newtown shooting and the one being specifically targeted for bans.
Walmart’s History with Guns
Though it now stands as one of the largest gun retailers in the nation, Walmart has had a somewhat complicated history with guns. In 2006, the company phased out guns in many stores, leaving a more limited selection in about a third of its stores nationwide, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Slumping sales over consecutive quarters prompted a return of rifles and ammunition to shelves in more of its stores in 2011, however, and TIME estimates that the company is now the single largest firearms dealer in the country, with reports that gun sales increased 76% in the first half of the last fiscal year.
Last month in particular marked a huge increase in sales, with the Huffington Post reporting that stores in five states sold out of semiautomatic rifles – a response thought to come in fear of tougher gun control policies following the tragedy in Newtown.
While Walmart does not sell handguns in any stores except those in Alaska, its rifle and shotgun sales make up a sizeable part of the market. MSN Money reports that the Freedom Group, the company that makes the Bushmaster assault rifle that was used in the Newtown shooting, makes 13% of its sales in Walmart stores.
The New York Times reported in 2006 that the company’s removal of guns in certain markets reflected its then desire to move into more urban markets, where demand for hunting goods was lower. Priorities shifted from selling outdoor gear to offering more upscale city needs and indoor fitness equipment.
Its subsequent restocking of sporting goods, including guns, in 2011 represented yet another shift in target demographic, this time back to its initial communities in more rural parts of the country, according to the TIME report.
Pressure to Take a Stance
While Walmart does not sell handguns in any stores except those in Alaska, its selection and availability of rifles, ammunition and shotguns in areas where other retail outfits are less prevalent makes it an important player in the way guns are sold.
As such a key figure, it is now finding itself in the center of the gun control debate, with gun control advocates pushing for the company to toughen its sales policies on guns, and gun rights groups hoping for continued access to full inventory.
Though this pressure is currently peaking, it is nothing new for the retailer. In 2008, Walmart agreed to terms with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s non-profit group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, creating the Responsible Firearms Retail Partnership, according to ABC News and a press release from the non-profit. This agreement set guidelines for gun sales that included videotaping all gun purchases, performing background checks on all gun buyers as well as gun sales employees and a gun crime trace log that can track guns used in crimes back to their point of purchase – terms that President Obama reiterated for industry-wide implementation at his press conference this Wednesday.
Demonstrations outside a Walmart store in Danbury, Connecticut earlier this week urged the retailer to implement even stricter controls, pushing a ban on all assault weapons sales. Those in attendance included those affected by the nearby Newtown shooting, as well as many gun owners, according the Chicago Tribune.
In a press release issued last week, Walmart Vice President of Corporate Communications David Tovar said that the company has been in talks with various government leaders as well as “sportsmen groups” and suppliers, on the issue of gun sale regulation.
What This Could Mean for Walmart
At this point, any move the company makes runs the risk of upsetting what Tovar refers to as “striking the right balance between serving hunters and sportsmen and ensuring that we sell firearms responsibly.”
This is a line Walmart has skirted for years: satisfying the needs of its largest market while not alienating other possible consumers. As TIME points out, the company’s moves in the last decade have indicated a desire to branch out into major cities while still retaining its hold on rural communities.
A more tough-handed stance on gun sales may relax more liberal consumers that tend toward gun control, and it may also serve as reassurance to those who see the store as a family-friendly company, as noted on Eureka-Wildwood Patch.
The 10-point gun sale policy that Walmart adopted in 2008 could also come to be a benefit if Congress passes proposed legislature that would require all gun retailers to implement similar regulation. As TIME points out, this may make it tougher for smaller operations and gun shows to keep up and could potentially drive more gun business to Walmart, as it has established practices in place already.
The fact that Walmart has already taken steps to lead the way to stricter gun sale regulation could be a sign that similar policies will soon be pushed across the board for gun retailers. While many in the store’s core rural markets may not like the idea of increased regulation, if Congress passes legislation requiring all gun retailers to adhere to such controls, Walmart may not see much of a specified backlash itself.
However, the company’s reversion in 2011 to once again making guns priority items in many stores shows how important rural communities and their hobbies are to the survival of the company. The suburban and middle-American markets are ones that Walmart does not want to upset.
MSN Money makes the case that while gun control advocates’ efforts to make the company ban assault weapons may serve to increase sales among gun rights groups who see the store as a “martyr for the Second Amendment,” the public’s outcry at recent bursts of gun violence may be too strong to ignore.
New York became the first state to crack down on assault weapons this past Tuesday, meaning that all stores selling guns, including Walmart, will have to alter their policies to adhere to the new laws, which include a tightened ban on assault rifles and restricting magazine rounds down to seven from 10, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
As of yet, Walmart has not issued any statements indicating they will change the way they currently sell firearms, according to Forbes. Walmart’s website currently lists 89 different types of rifles available, though purchases can only be made in-store.
Written by Kameela Din, a freelance writer and core contributor to NerdWallet Shopping.