Walmart is facing increasing pressure to halt its sale of guns following the mass shooting this weekend at its store in El Paso, Texas, that left 21 people dead. The incident came just a few days after another shooting at one of its Mississippi locations — when a suspended employee fatally shot two co-workers.
The Walmart shootings — along with Sunday’s attack in Dayton, Ohio, that left nine people dead — spurred another national conversation on gun control. More than a dozen companies have already cut corporate ties with the National Rifle Association, with Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision last February to ban the sale of assault-style rifles in its stores and not allow people under 21 years old to buy guns.
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Although the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail behemoth has scaled back sales of certain firearms, Walmart is still widely considered the biggest seller of guns in the U.S., and firearms represent a significant portion of its business. Over the weekend, advocacy groups and individuals pressed the chain to stop selling guns completely.
In a statement, Walmart expressed “shock over the tragic events” and wrote that it was “working closely with law enforcement.” It also confirmed in an email to FN that it was neither updating its security protocol at stores nor making any changes to its gun sales policy.
According to crisis management expert and Reputation Control Inc. CEO Hersh Davis-Nitzberg, big-name companies like Walmart should invest time in developing in-depth strategies to address social issues.
“As a business, you want to stay out of politics,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what side you’re on — this is trauma. This isn’t just a Walmart thing. From a larger perspective, this is a core messaging and branding issue.”
Davis-Nitzberg also spoke with FN last year following the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and staff members were killed by gunfire. A week later, Walmart made headlines when it announced it would raise the minimum age to 21 from 18 to purchase a firearm as well as remove products that bear resemblance to assault-style rifles.
But this time the situation hits much closer to home, considering that the shootings happened at Walmart’s own stores. For David-Nitzberg, the retailer’s ability to avoid a backlash lies in its next steps — whether it intends to publicly support common-sense gun laws or lend a helping hand to affected communities.
“Their moves are going to have to be a reflection of their ability to maintain their core consumer,” he said. “Walmart will want to stay above the fray and make it so that the conversation is more about the things they are doing in the community to help them through this tragedy and overcome this setback.”
Walmart’s relationship with firearms goes way back. In 1993, the retailer stopped selling handguns at its then-2,000 stores (except in Alaska), and in 2006, it ceased the sale of firearms at two-thirds of its stores in the United States. Two years later, it tightened its policy for ammunition sales, which many deemed stricter than federal background checks.
After the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Walmart was confronted once again with the issue of selling assault-style, semiautomatic weapons. Three years later, it ended sales of modern sporting rifles, including the AR-15. (The company also doesn’t carry bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and similar accessories.)
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