A growing number of retailers are asking customers not to openly carry firearms in their stores in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings last month that left nearly three dozen dead.
While the businesses are well within their legal right to bar guests from bringing guns into their shops, experts say, the requests suggest companies are on the hunt for a middle ground between customers who may perceive danger and law-abiding gun owners.
“When you’re a private business, you can do whatever you want,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “You are not required to allow carry.”
Walmart led the charge this year in asking customers to leave their firearms at home following a rampage at its store in El Paso, Texas, and a shooting at a store in Southaven, Mississippi. The retail giant came under pressure from employees and gun control groups to stop the sale of firearms, though the company remained mum on changes to its store policies in the immediate aftermath of the massacres, which left a combined 24 people dead.
But nearly a month after the shooting, Walmart announced it would stop selling ammunition for handguns and short-barrel rifles. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer also said it is “respectfully requesting” Walmart and Sam’s Club customers to no longer openly carry firearms in stores where it’s permitted under state law. The retailer did not make changes to its policies regarding concealed carry by customers with permits.
Walmart said its decision was to ensure the safety of its customers and prevent situations from being misinterpreted and leading to “tragic results.”
“We know these decisions will inconvenience some of our customers, and we hope they will understand,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said in a memo to employees. “As a company, we experienced two horrific events in one week, and we will never be the same.”
The retailer’s announcement led to a cascade of similar requests at other stores, including Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Wegmans, Aldi, Publix, Meijer, and Giant Eagle.
The companies, however, stopped short of outright forbidding customers from carrying firearms on their property, though they have the right to do so.
The Second Amendment and state gun laws, Blackman said, are “rights against the government, but not rights against private businesses.”
Residents of at least 40 states are permitted to openly carry handguns in public, and of those states, a license or permit is not required in 31, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Residents of 44 states, meanwhile, can openly carry long guns, and in the majority of those states, can do so without a license or permit.
In Texas, where the Walmart shooting took place, new state laws took effect in 2016 allowing the open carry of handguns. Under the law, businesses that don’t want to permit open carry can prohibit customers from doing so but must post signage in English and Spanish notifying the public concealed carry or open carry is barred. For businesses that don’t post signs, the presumption is customers can carry, Blackman said.
It’s unclear how all the stores will enforce their new policies regarding customers openly carrying firearms, but the onus for doing so will likely fall to employees.
“We might see individual stores, if the managers have certain opinions, sweep into action,” Blackman said. “The national base saying we’re going to announce this policy has no teeth.”
A spokesperson for Walmart said that in parts of the country where customers are more accustomed to seeing others openly carry firearms, a person with a gun holstered to his or her waist may be able to go about shopping without an issue. But in other places where it is less common, a member of that store’s management or security team may approach a customer openly carrying a gun if another associate or customer has an issue.
Walmart is providing guidance to stores on how to handle those discussions with customers, the spokesperson said, and the company is working to avoid situations that could result in a confrontation.
Erich Pratt, vice president of Gun Owners For America, criticized the new policies as “nonsensical” and an indication businesses are “succumbing to anti-gun hysteria.” But he noted the requests will drastically affect just a subset of customers, namely those between the ages of 18 and 20 who are not of the legal minimum age to concealed carry.
“For young adults in that age bracket, open carry is their only option,” Pratt said. “This is disenfranchising a lot of young adults from their right to protect themselves.”
Pratt believes the new policies will be “massively disregarded” and predicts an increasing number of customers will concealed carry instead. He also warned the new policy could make people less safe.
“Their decision to restrict people from defending themselves is really going to have the opposite effect,” Pratt said. “It’s moving them toward creating a defense-free zone.”
But in asking, rather than telling, customers they can’t openly carry, companies are walking a line between addressing the concerns of those who may be fearful if they see people with handguns holstered to their hips or rifles slung over their shoulders and law-abiding gun owners.
“It basically signals virtue to gun control groups but doesn’t actually alienate customers,” Blackman said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re doing all these great things,’ but [gun owners] can still carry.”
Polling suggests the public is nearly split on the issue. A survey conducted by Edelman this month found 52% of respondents would be more favorable toward a company that no longer allowed customers to bring firearms into its stores.
The Walmart spokesperson said that in deciding not to outright prohibit customers from openly carrying in its more than 4,700 stores, the company was trying to strike a balance between the recent shootings and what may be right for the local community. The retailer also was seeking to be mindful of its history of serving customers who are gun owners.
In 2014, Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group that advocates for stricter gun laws, launched a campaign demanding that Kroger, the third-largest retailer in the nation, ask guests not to openly carry guns in its stores. Kroger at the time declined to do so, but it changed course in September.
Target, Chipotle, and Starbucks, meanwhile, all asked their customers to leave their firearms at home years ago.
But the new policies from the latest batch of retailers also come as Congress faces heightened pressure to pass stricter gun laws. The White House is expected to deliver to lawmakers a proposal that aims to curb gun violence in the coming days. Among the proposals under discussion are expanded background checks for firearms purchases and “red flag” laws, which allow law enforcement to take guns from people who pose a danger to themselves and others.
Chief executives from 145 companies, meanwhile, urged the Senate this month to pass a House-passed bill requiring universal background checks and to enact a “red flag” law and decried any inaction from lawmakers as “simply unacceptable.”
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