Walmart Versus Shannon Watts: Guess Who Wins?

The announcement by Walmart that their stores will no longer sell handgun or assault-rifle ammunition is, if nothing else, a testimony to the hard work and energy of our friend Shannon Watts which has been on display now for the past six years. Shannon began a national gun-control campaign shortly after Sandy Hook focusing on women, particularly women with children, and using public spaces where most women could be found, namely, at the entrance to retail stores, Walmart being at the top of her list.

I remember seeing a group of red-shirted women from MOMS marching in front of the entrance to a Walmart store in 2015.  I had often seen other public advocacy efforts in front of this store, usually people asking shoppers to sign a petition to get someone on the ballot of the upcoming election in the nearby town. But I had never previously encountered anyone marching in front of any public space with messaging that had to do with guns.

Of course right now Shannon’s Walmart strategy has had plenty of help, unfortunately help of the wrong kind. Because until recently, mass shootings were still infrequent enough that if you gave it a couple of days, like any other natural disaster, the media would stop talking about it and public concerns about gun violence would subside. But lately, it seems like once every week a bunch of people get mowed down in a public space.

We’re not talking about an ‘epidemic’ of mass shootings, which means an event which creates a lot of injuries but occurs only from time to time. We are talking about something which, to quote our friend Katherine Christoffel, has become ‘endemic,’ i.e., it’s happening all the time.

The significance of Walmart’s announcement lies in the fact that retail chains tend to watch each other in the same way that drugstore chains are usually clustered where they can keep an eye on what each chain is promoting in a particular week. If overall revenues for Walmart don’t take a hit from this announcement, which I suspect they won’t, it would come as no surprise if other discount chains follow suit. And nobody, but nobody cared when the NRA whined about Walmart’s ‘shameful’ decision.

On the other hand, my friends in Gun-control Nation need to understand that the importance of Walmart’s announcement is much more a symbolic gesture rather than representing anything real. Not that symbols aren’t important – all advocacy relies on symbolic messaging to get their arguments across. But let’s not kid themselves into thinking that a decision by Walmart to pull out of the gun business will have any real impact on injuries from guns.

My gun shop is located less than a mile from a Walmart. The store was never a competitive element when it came to gun sales, because Walmart doesn’t sell handguns and never sold used guns of any kind. And generally speaking, what creates foot traffic in every gun retailing establishment are handguns and used guns of all sorts.

Where Walmart did hurt me was in ammunition sales because there was simply no way I could compete with a big-box’s pricing structure for a commodity as common as ammunition, particularly calibers bought in bulk, like 22LR for target shooting and shotgun shells. But these calibers don’t represent the type of ammo which trauma surgeons have to dig out of people’s chests or heads. I can guarantee you that if I were still doing retail ammunition sales, that within 30 minutes after Walmart’s announcement, my gun wholesaler would have contacted me with a ‘great deal’ on 9mm and 40 S&W rounds.

The real importance of the Walmart announcement is that it places the issue squarely where it belongs – on products that have nothing to do with sporting or hunting guns. In this respect, Shannon has won a major victory that pushes the gun business back to where it really belongs.

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Can A Church Tell Walmart What Kinds Of Guns To Sell? This Church Thinks It Can.

Sooner or later it figures that someone would begin to follow the path blazed by Shannon Watts and her ladies and begin to view retail outlets not just as places where some good PR could be generated by demonstrating against guns, but as financial institutions whose balance sheets might make them targets for shareholder concerns.  And now one of America’s most storied institutions, New York’s Trinity Church, has decided to voice its concern about gun violence by asking Walmart, whose shares it happens to own , to stop selling the assault-style rifles that were used by James Holmes in Aurora and Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook.

The Church, which sits on Lower Broadway across the street from where Wall Street begins, is asking the company to include a proxy in this year’s shareholder meeting that would require the company’s Board to oversee the sale of “products that especially endanger public safety and well-being, risk impairing the company’s reputation, or offend the family and community values integral to the company’s brand.”  Walmart got the SEC to issue an order preventing the proposal from going before the shareholders in 2014, hence Trinity’s decision to take the matter to federal court.  In November, the U.S. District Court decided in favor of Trinity which provoked an appeal by Walmart based on the idea that the Board should not be in a position to decid day-to-day operations of the stores. Now the case is headed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, probably to be heard in early March.

walmart                This case rests partially on deciding whether the owners of a public company can decide how the company should be run, but it also rests on the notion that Walmart is selling a product that, because it “endangers public safety,” should not be sold at all.  This is very similar to the idea behind the lawsuit against Bushmaster filed by the parents of some of the victims at Sandy Hook, namely, that Bushmaster should be held liable for the damages caused by a type of gun which, because of its lethality, that should not be put into civilian hands.

Walmart’s response to Trinity was disingenuous at best.  The company, through a spokesman named Randy Hargrove, cited its “long standing commitment” to standards that far exceed the law (I never met a company whose commitments to anything weren’t long-standing), and to prove its commitment to safety Mr. Hargrove said that neither high capacity magazines nor guns were sold on Walmart.com.  It turns out that online sales account for less than 3% of Walmart’s total revenues, so citing company rules that govern gun sales on the internet could hardly be construed as proof of a commitment to anything at all.

The attempt by Trinity Church to push Walmart into discontinuing the sale of black guns shouldn’t be confused with an effort by a coalition of advocacy groups to persuade investors to divest themselves of holdings in Cerberus Capital, which owns the company (Freedom Group) that owns Bushmster Arms.  To the extent that this campaign has frustrated the attempt by Cerberus to unload Freedom Arms, the firm has certainly not seen its position in the private equity market greatly diminished by the determination of advocates to force the company to stop selling guns.

On the other hand, what is really at stake in the Trinity case, whether the Church realizes this or not, is a fundamental question that strikes at the rationale for the existence of the entire gun industry itself.  Ever since gun makers began to realize that hunting and traditional sports were declining and might eventually disappear, the gun industry has promoted the idea that guns are intrinsically good because they protect us from harm.  What Trinity is saying is that certain kinds of guns, and perhaps all guns, endanger rather than protect us, and therefore should not be sold.  If the Court of Appeals sides with Trinity and black guns disappear from store shelves, what prevents Mike Bloomberg from loading up on Walmart stock and demanding a seat on the Board?