Walmart and The Politics of Guns

Walmart’s gun policies matter a lot–at least to me. It was only when I started to follow news stories of Walmart ammo counters being emptied in anticipation of the gun bans that then-President Elect Obama would put into place (didn’t happen) that I realized that I wanted to make a career out of studying guns from a sociological perspective. What a difference a decade makes. Over ten years later, Walmart’s has decided to   remove a variety of classes of ammunition from its shelves and to openly discourage open carry.

Initial reactions to the decisions have been mixed; there is the expected celebration and condemnation by gun control and gun rights advocates, respectively, as well as some quippy twists–for example, that local mom-and-pop gun stores are probably rejoicing at the news that one of their big competitors is pulling itself out of the market, or that capitalism is cleaning up a problem that the government won’t fix itself–a weird endorsement of the free market, for sure.

For gun control advocates who see this as a less-than-meaningful victory, this canary in the coal mine of gun policies probably means a hell of a lot more than a symbolic gun law that accomplishes little or–as the aftermath of the 1994 assault weapons ban showed–a substantive gun law that accomplished a lot. Ambitious gun policy is a boom to the NRA and the gun rights movement insofar as it substantiates fears about sweeping gun policies and provides a powerful point of anger and action among a gun community that is increasingly fragmented amid decades of loosening gun policy. In contrast to bold legal change, the decisions of Walmart and other big companies to shift their corporate policies on guns inspire (relatively speaking) little in the way of organized action, other than to boycott them. This is both because corporations represent softer targets than laws but also because pro-gun advocates generally lean libertarian, meaning that suspicions about state encroachment don’t translate comfortably into suspicions about corporate overreach.

In addition to likely galvanizing less organized resistance among gun rights advocates, the move also suggests a kind of victory that laws–in themselves–do not necessarily indicate. Walmart’s removal of certain ammunition represents a cultural victory–not a legal victory. That matters because laws only matter as much as they are reinforced by the culture in which they are binding. The NRA has long understood this–which is why it has focused not just on changing laws but also changing culture, and why its been so successful at changing both. The gun control movement, comparatively, has made many in-roads in terms of changing minds on policy, but it has been comparatively less proficient at changing culture.

Walmart’s decision was undertaken in the aftermath of the El Paso mass shooting, a violent act of anti-immigrant terrorism that left 22 people dead. But this is not the first or last instance of gun violence in its stores; a few days after the El Paso shooting, a “disgruntled” worker killed two people at a Mississippi Walmart. John Crawford III was shot and killed by police in a Walmart near Dayton, OH in 2014 when he picked up an air rifle for sale in the sporting goods section of the store. Of course, the obvious question is why certain instances of gun violence inspire certain responses (i.e., what counts as gun violence? what counts as a solution to it?), and how certain acts of gun violence–such as the killing of Crawford–are seen as beyond the purview of corporate concern. It’s worth pointing out that Walmart’s decision to discourage open carrying may actually make more vulnerable people like Crawford who, by virtue of racist stereotypes casting boys and men of color as suspicious, may be even more likely to be mistaken for an armed aggressor rather than a shopper. Walmart will still sell its air rifles, after all.  

Walmart’s decision indicates a meaningful threshold–perhaps intimating a splintering polarization, perhaps instead a broader-based shift–regarding the cultural place of guns in society. What comes next will depend on whether this move indicates not just changing tides but also shifts in the deeper currents of gun culture in the US–and how those shifts both address gun violence and also draw boundaries around what kinds of gun violence is worth addressing. 

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