“It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable.” So wrote Walmart chief executive officer Doug McMillon on Tuesday in a memo informing employees of the retailer’s next steps in response to the ongoing gun violence across the United States, including the two shootings last month at Walmart stores in Southaven, Miss., and El Paso, Tex.
McMillon said that the retailer will stop carrying certain types of ammunition, and will no longer sell handguns in Alaska, the only state where it has continued to do so. He called for Washington to finally act on the gun crisis, and has sent letters to the White House and congressional leaders encouraging action. He said, too, that Walmart will share its best-practices developments with other retailers free of charge, specifying its proprietary firearms-sales technology platform that aids in navigating complicated compliance laws and regulations throughout the gun-selling process. Walmart had previously taken other measures, including halting the sale of handguns (except in Alaska, for some reason) and military-style rifles and raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21.
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The moves McMillon revealed on Tuesday are a further step in the right direction and are garnering great praise from many outlets. But they’re a baby step when giant leaps are necessary on multiple levels, including by this giant of commerce whose actions are both powerfully symbolic and practically resonant.
In his letter, McMillon comes across as deeply impacted by the shootings of 50 people, 24 of whom were killed, in the two Walmart episodes. His words resonate with the desire to make a positive impact. “We want what’s best for our customers, our associates and our communities,” he said. “In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again.”
The time has passed for incremental steps. Yet in the face of mounting pressure of those disgusted by the ongoing violence, he’s proceeding forward cautiously, so as not to lose faith with his gun customers. “We know these decisions will inconvenience some of our customers, and we hope they will understand,” he said, noting that Walmart will continue to be a source for the hunting population. Hence the ongoing sale of hunting rifles, ammunition and other of the sport’s accoutrements.
Perhaps McMillon genuinely believes that serving the hunting community is somehow noble. “We have a long heritage as a company of serving responsible hunters and sportsmen and women, and we’re going to continue doing so,” he said. “Our founder, Sam Walton, was an avid outdoorsman who had a passion for quail hunting, and we’re headquartered in a state known for its duck hunting and deer hunting.”
Respecting heritage serves a purpose, and whatever one thinks of hunting as a sport, many who engage in it are law-abiding, decent people. But times have changed since Sam Walton first set up shop. Gun violence is a national scourge. In the world we live in right now, should the retailer that is the primary commerce epicenter for millions and millions of people, that markets itself as warm and welcoming, have anything to do with firearms, whatever their stated purpose? How inconvenienced would hunters be if they had to buy their rifles from a niche sporting goods store? Hunting is a leisure activity, as nonessential as it gets. If participants have to drive a few more miles to gear up, so what?
Then there’s the matter of when these changes will go into effect. The ammunition will be discontinued only “after selling through our current inventory commitments,” McMillon said. Implicit in discontinuing such ammunition is the belief that to do so serves the greater good. Explicit in keeping this ammunition on the shelves until it sells through is that the greater good can be postponed for short-term profit. Walmart should look at eliminating this ammunition as a self-mandated recall, and act as it would if the product causing harm were a faulty baby stroller or microwave — pull it. Period. Retailers pull merchandise all the time, for all sorts of reasons.
Sometimes, consumer expectations are at odds with a retailer’s overall purpose and mission. CVS used to sell cigarettes, but it stopped because selling a deadly product made no sense for a company with a health-care orientation. McMillon knows that such optics matter. A perusal on Tuesday of Walmart’s web site offered far fewer T-shirts with vitriolic pro-gun slogans than in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. While some shirts still tout the Second Amendment, the most outrageous messaging is gone, replaced by endless Guns N’ Roses and “Top Gun” offerings. It’s unlikely that distinct change is accidental.
Granted, T-shirts are a far less potent example than real firearms of Walmart’s desire to distance itself from the uglier aspects of gun culture. But again, optics matter. Walmart is more than a retailer. It is, for millions of families and individuals, a beloved institution integral to their lives. Do selling firearms and eliminating ammunition that works with assault weapons only via a gradual sell-through really enhance that role?
Common sense says no. Of course, McMillon doesn’t want to inconvenience customers; no retailers do. But when it comes to certain extraordinary issues, compromise is code for cop out. Sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t please everyone. Then, you have to go all in on what’s right, even when it’s inconvenient.