Gun Control in the Retail Industry

Could Walmart’s decision to stop selling assault-style rifles influence the reality of gun control in the future of retail?

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Editor’s Note: This article, which was among LP Magazine’s top stories in 2015, illuminates the widespread debate over the sale of assault-type weapons in stores. Regardless of personal perspectives, retail industry and loss prevention professionals have a critical responsibility to understand these issues and enforce safety and organizational policies.

Walmart, the nation’s largest seller of guns and ammunition, announced this year that it would no longer sell high-powered assault-type rifles in its retail stores in the United States. The decision followed years of public debate on the subject in light of a number of active shooter incidents; and pressure for stores throughout the retail industry to stop selling some of the most lethal weapons associated with many of the nation’s mass shootings.

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A Walmart spokesman, Kory Lundberg, said the retailer would stop selling modern sporting rifles, which are similar to the AR-15 assault rifle, a semi-automatic weapon which has been sold in locations throughout the retail industry. He added that Walmart would no longer sell any weapons that accept high-capacity ammunition magazines. The assault-style sporting rifles had been carried at less than a third of Walmart’s roughly 4,600 stores across the country.

According to Walmart, the decision to remove the rifles was motivated simply based on sales and customer demand. The decision was not made based on security or loss prevention concerns, or as a result of public pressure or political motivations.
“It was done purely based on customer demand,” Mr. Lundberg said, adding that the assault-style sporting rifles were not “something customers were looking for and buying when they came into our stores.” While the assault-type rifles were removed, the company added to its offerings of shotguns and other weapons commonly used by hunters.

Although Walmart attributes its decision to falling demand for such military-style rifles, sales of long guns, which include assault rifles, have held steady. “Sales of rifles are up,” said Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy expert who recently worked to develop guidelines on gun sales for retailers in New York City. Still, he believes that the company’s sales of these weapons had slowed because it had tightened background checks and taken other measures that might have dissuaded some gun buyers from patronizing its stores. Strong policies, appropriate awareness programs and employee training regarding the proper sale and documentation of these weapons are critical aspects of responsible sales.

“In my experience working with Walmart, I found them to be extremely concerned about responsible gun sales,” Gerney said. “They definitely wanted to stay in the market and serve customers who wanted to buy guns, but they were very interested and responsive to ideas about how to make those sales safer and to make it less likely that the guns that they sell were ultimately misused.”

Gun control advocates viewed the company’s action as significant because similar types of weapons were used by shooters in recent massacres, including an attack on a Colorado movie theater and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After nine people were gunned down inside a church in Charleston, S.C., in June, the chief executive of Walmart, Doug McMillon, indicated in an interview with CNN that he wanted to curb sales of such weapons in their retail locations.

“Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters and people who shoot sporting clays, and things like that,” says McMillion. “So the types of rifles we sell, the types of ammunition we sell, should be curated for those things.”

Gun control experts said they hoped the decision would prompt other major players in the retail industry, like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s, to follow suit. While this may be seen by some as a step in the right direction, others feel that more drastic steps should follow.

“We need more than paltry measures to truly take on gun violence,” says New York City Councilwoman Letitia James in a July statement. While the city’s five pension funds have nearly $300 million invested in Walmart. James feels that the city should divest from Walmart stock because the retailer is the country’s biggest gun seller “We must take real action and commit to removing all guns from store shelves, not simply those that are not in demand. That is why I am leading the push for New York City to fully divest from gun and ammunition retailers, including Walmart.”

By the same respect, others believe that all US citizens have a constitutional right to bear and keep arms, and that these weapons should not be removed from retail shelves. Many feel that while control is important, the 2nd amendment is a fundamental part of the freedoms we have as Americans citizens, giving us the legal right to protect ourselves, our families and our homes.

The topic of firearms in the retail industry tends to draw strong opinions from many Americans. However, that passion seems to be shared across many different points of view. Our freedoms carry certain responsibilities, and it’s not easy to make choices that are intended to protect all of us—but can cause great harm when placed in the hands of a select few.

A September LP Magazine Instant Poll asked: “Do you support Walmart’s decision to pull their offerings of assault-type rifles and similar firearms from store locations?”

Looking at results strictly from a “Yes” or “No” response, participants were split almost evenly, with 49 percent indicating that they supported the decision to pull assault-type rifles from the retail store locations, while 51 percent indicated that they did not support this decision.

A review of several national polls from last fall revealed comparable results on the subject, fluctuating on both sides of the topic of gun control but remaining fairly evenly split on the responses. Some feel strongly that it is a right that needs to be protected. Others disagree, believing that the potential dangers make the decision much more complicated.

Where there appears to be much stronger agreement, however, involves opinions supporting appropriate controls over the sale of firearms of all types. A review of several national polls showed that Americans firmly believe that steps should be taken to perform background checks and take additional steps to appropriately control firearms sales, an opinion that held true across different political views, gun owners vs. non-gun owners, and other interests as well. Although responses varied depending on the poll participants and the way in which the topic and question were presented, these polls typically revealed 74 percent to 97 percent support for such controls. While opinions may vary regarding the sale and/or ownership of these firearms, there seems to be agreement that appropriate steps should be taken to help deter these weapons from ending up in the wrong hands.

This is also where retail management and loss prevention professionals can have significant influence. Effective policies, stringent controls, detailed audits, appropriate security, robust training programs, and strict enforcement must be the protocol in every retail organization where firearms are sold. Regardless of our personal perspectives on the subject, we should all be able to agree that safe practices and responsible management should always remain a primary responsibility.

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