NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Responsibility for reining in America’s epidemic of gun violence is widely spread. Politicians, gun owners, retailers, banks and investors all have a role to play, and even modest commitments can make a difference. After a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas became the scene of a multiple shooting on Saturday, the $312 billion U.S. retailer could put that principle into practice.
Walmart has already done much to restrict its peddling of lethal weapons. The company raised the minimum age for purchases to 21 from 18 last year, and no longer stocks assault-style weapons or high-capacity magazines. It shows no signs of moving to an outright ban, which would be bold for the world’s largest retailer by sales. Nonetheless, there are three things it could do that need not be at odds with its imperative to remain profitable.
First, the retailer run by Doug McMillon could ask customers not to bring weapons into its stores, even where state laws permit them to do so. Starbucks put out a “respectful request” to its customers in 2013 asking – not telling – them to keep their guns out of its branches. Levi Strauss, Chipotle and Walmart-rival Target have made similar requests while Costco Wholesale, which operates as a member’s club, bans guns.
Second, Walmart could announce a strategic review into the financial impact of selling firearms. Dick’s Sporting Goods, which pulled assault-style weapons from its shelves in 2018, is doing just that, and has already said that guns and ammo carry lower margins than other kinds of sporting products. Besides, the case for stocking firearms is weakening. Sturm, Ruger last week said its three-month sales had dropped by one-quarter from a year earlier, tanking its shares by 19%.
Finally, if Walmart is going to sell firearms, it could declare itself open to selling technology-enabled guns that can be fired only by their owner. Dick’s boss Ed Stack did that in November. Such weapons aren’t yet available, and many gun enthusiasts doubt their efficacy. But a pledge of notional support from the world’s biggest retailer would help bring capital into their development.
None of these steps might have made any difference to the mass shootings that took place in recent days. Wider problems – including the U.S. Senate’s inability to pass legislation that would make background checks mandatory in most gun sales – are more destructive by far. Still, small steps matter. Walmart can’t fix this problem alone, but it can definitely do more than nothing.
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