BENTONVILLE, Ark. - In some ways, Walmart's announcement Tuesday that it will stop selling some guns and ammunition — and ask customers not to openly carry guns in its stores — is just another step in a years-long process of reevaluating its relationship with firearms.
Walmart's stance on guns began slowly shifting when it stopped selling assault-style rifles following a shooting in 2015. Then, last year, after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the company raised the age for purchasing a gun in its stores from 18 to 21. It has also taken other steps toward tightening gun sales restrictions, such as requiring gun buyers to pass background checks and declining to sell bump stocks.
But Tuesday's announcement is also a major turning point for Walmart, an historically conservative company whose founder was an avid hunter. The move puts Walmart on an unfamiliar side of the gun debate, as CEO Doug McMillon also announced he would begin calling on Congress to tighten firearms laws.
"You can only see it as great news," said Ed Scruggs, president of Texas Gun Sense, a group that advocates for measures such as universal background checks for prospective gun purchasers. "I think they heard us, the overwhelming call from consumers across the country who recoiled in horror at what happened in El Paso."
What was at stake for Walmart
The company had been facing growing pressure from workers and customers to end gun sales after more than 22 people were shot and killed inside a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, last month.
Employees said they no longer wanted to be "complicit" in gun sales and organized protests. Gun control advocates pointed out that with such a large, national footprint, Walmart's voice could be a powerful one in the push for gun control measures such as requiring all gun buyers to pass a background check, just as the retailer does in its stores.
Just hours after Walmart's announcement Tuesday, grocery chain Kroger said it would also start asking customers not to openly carry firearms in its stores and would join calls for elected officials to enact gun safety laws, though it did not mention Walmart explicitly. Kroger stopped selling guns last year.
But Walmart's decision was not without risk — the retailer has stores across the country, and has many customers who may oppose the company calling for tighter restrictions on guns. The National Rifle Association released a statement Tuesday calling Walmart's decision "shameful" and suggested that "lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America's fundamental freedoms."
The move will also lower Walmart's profits from firearms and ammunition sales, though those were already a small part of its overall business. And it will reduce the company's share of the firearms and ammunition markets. The company had estimated it comprised 2% of the overall US gun sales market, and 20% of the market for ammunition. It now expects its share of the ammunition market to fall to between 6% and 9%.
Walmart executives, however, said the move was necessary to protect its employees and customers, and to address the concerns they've expressed.
"We serve more than 60% of the US population in any given month, meaning that those views of our customers — and, frankly, with over a million associates, the views of our associates — are going to largely reflect the general public opinion of trends on these issues," Dan Bartlett, Walmart executive vice president of corporate affairs, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. "So in light of that, we as a company have to look at our business and our values and make decisions based on what we think is best for our associates and our customers."
Walmart said it will continue serving customers interested in hunting by selling long barrel deer rifles and shotguns, and much of the ammunition for those guns.
Advocates and employees cheer
The move won praise from Walmart employees and gun control advocates, as well as acknowledgment from some Democratic candidates for president who have criticized the retailer in the past, such as Bernie Sanders.
Thomas Marshall, a 23-year-old Walmart sales associate from California, helped organize a petition calling on Walmart to stop ending gun sales after the El Paso shooting. He told CNN Business Tuesday that he and other employees are grateful to McMillion for the decision.
"This is really reaffirming from a company that says they value the opinions of associates and care for customers," Marshall said.
Gun control advocates say that reducing the amount of guns and ammunition in circulation is likely to reduce the frequency of gun violence.
"It's a positive step in the right direction," said Mike Dowling, president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider and private employer, who has written about gun violence as a "public health crisis."
Dowling likened Walmart's move to reduce gun sales to CVS' decision to stop selling tobacco products in 2014 out of a concern for public health.
"If over time, people have less access to guns, I believe very strongly that you will have less killing and less violence and less death," Dowling said.
Now, gun control advocates hope other retailers and elected officials will follow Walmart's lead. McMillon said Tuesday he plans to send letters to the White House and congressional leaders calling for action on "common sense" gun safety measures. He said Congress should debate re-authorizing the assault weapons ban and expanding background checks.
"In the absence of Congress acting, it really is requiring the private sector to step in where Congress has failed to act," said Kris Brown, president of gun safety organization Brady United. "Leaders like Walmart need to be applauded for stepping out and doing the right thing."
Brown said she now hopes Walmart will take additional steps, such as refusing to sell guns made by manufacturers that also make semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Walmart's announcement comes days after the state of Texas loosened gun control restrictions with new laws that were approved in June but went into effect shortly after a mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, over the weekend. Victoria Neave, a Democratic state representative from Austin, has asked Texas Governor Greg Abbott to convene an emergency legislative session to address the gun violence. The next regular Texas legislative session is in 2021.
Neave said she hopes pressure from big corporations like Walmart will push Abbott and other Republican lawmakers in the state to take action.
"I feel like we have failed the people of Texas by not making substantive reforms that are critically necessary, and people are dying," Neave said. "I do think that there's room for working together, I think the business community's voice is essential to creating that shift in dynamic that we have during these battles."
-- CNN Business' Nathaniel Meyersohn contributed to this report.
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