In many parts of the country, it’s not unusual to see customers carrying guns down the aisles of the local Walmart or Kroger grocery store. Open carry of handguns in public places is legal in 46 states, 31 of those without any kind of license or permit required. For long guns such as shotguns and rifles, open carry is legal in 44 states, with only a handful of restrictions.
Private businesses are well within their rights to prohibit firearms on their property no matter what state they’re in, but until this month, many of the nation’s largest retailers had no explicit policies on the issue. On September 3, though, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon published an open letter “respectfully requesting” customers not to open carry guns into its stores or Sam’s Club locations, even in states where it’s legal to do so.
The announcement came a month after two separate Walmart shootings — in one, a gunman killed 22 and injured at least 27 others in El Paso, Texas, and in another, a disgruntled employee killed two coworkers and wounded an officer in Mississippi. In recent days, other retailers have followed Walmart’s lead, with Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, Wegmans, Aldi, and Meijer all issuing statements asking customers, other than authorized law enforcement personnel, to refrain from openly carrying firearms into their stores.
The shift has been spurred in part by gun safety groups such as Moms Demand Action, which started the hashtag #GroceriesNotGuns back in 2014 to urge Kroger — with 3,035 stores, the country’s third-largest retailer — to take a stand against open carry. At the time, similar campaigns directed toward chains like Target, Starbucks, and Chipotle had been successful, but Kroger held firm, stating that its policy was “to follow state and local laws and to ask customers to be respectful of others while shopping,” in part because, “we don’t want to put our associates in a position of having to confront a customer who is legally carrying a gun.”
Its new policy isn’t a total about-face: Like most of its peers, it is asking rather than demanding that customers don’t open carry. (Chipotle, Starbucks, and Target all issued “respectful requests” as well.) But according to Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, that’s generally enough to persuade most rule-abiding gun owners. “What we have seen over and over again is when companies send this strong signal, the open carry inside their stores stops,” she says.
National retailers may choose the softer approach in part because the requirements for restricting firearms vary from state to state, and some make it particularly onerous to do so, says Andrew Karwoski, deputy director of state policy for Everytown for Gun Safety. In Texas, for instance, a business must post three separate signs, written in English and Spanish, in order to prohibit all firearms: one that forbids concealed handguns, one that forbids open carry of handguns, and one that forbids long guns.
Posting these signs also introduces a layer of liability, he says, as people who enter with a prohibited gun would be committing criminal trespassing.
For Walmart’s part, it says it plans to take a “very non-confrontational approach” to enforcing its new policy and will be distributing signage in the coming weeks that will communicate its no-open-carry request to customers. Associates will be instructed to contact a manager rather than approaching an open-carry customer directly, and it will be up to the manager, asset protection, or security personnel to remind that customer of Walmart’s policy and, if warranted, ask them to store the weapon in their vehicle. If the situation escalates and customers or employees feel unsafe, they may also call law enforcement.
Even before the new policy went into effect, Walmart banned a customer, Jake Aaron Adkins of Lexington, Kentucky, from its stores in mid-August after he livestreamed himself sitting in front of an unmanned gun counter and with a holstered handgun yelling for customer service, one of several similar videos Adkins had posted on Facebook. (While the video has resurfaced on Twitter this week, a Walmart spokesperson told the AP that its “decision to ask this person to no longer shop with us was the result of his disruptive and unsettling behavior,” rather than the new policy, which had not yet been announced.).
In McMillon’s letter, he cited “multiple incidents since El Paso where individuals attempting to make a statement and test our response have entered our stores carrying weapons in a way that frightened or concerned our associates and customers.” Likewise, he wrote, there have been “well-intentioned customers acting lawfully that have inadvertently caused a store to be evacuated and local law enforcement to be called to respond.”
In Springfield, Missouri, the week following the El Paso shooting (as well as another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people), a 20-year-old man named Dmitriy Andreychenko filmed himself walking into Walmart in a tactical vest carrying a loaded AR-style rifle and a semiautomatic handgun on his hip. His appearance — which police later said was part of a “social experiment” designed to test the limits of his Second Amendment rights — caused a panic in the store, prompting a manager to pull the fire alarm and encourage customers to evacuate. (Ultimately, an armed customer, a former firefighter and EMT, held Andreychenko at gunpoint and called 911.)
While open carry is legal in the state, “that does not allow an individual to act in a reckless and criminal manner endangering other citizens,” said prosecutors afterward, charging him with making a terrorist threat for purposefully inciting fear among other customers and employees.
Even many Second-Amendment advocates allow that this kind of stunt doesn’t help their cause. Brandon Holloway, a Walmart associate in Southern Texas, says he chooses to open carry because his size (5-foot-9, 145 pounds) and gun of choice (a full-size Beretta 92FS handgun, which measures 8.5 by 5.4 inches) make it difficult to carry concealed. He says his employer is “pandering” and “jumping on the left’s agenda” with the new policy, but also that people like Andreychenko who go out seeking attention give the rest of the gun community a bad name.
”Of course some people will react when someone walks in with a tactical vest and an AR. Who wouldn’t? I would react. I would go, ‘What a moron.’”
Holloway contends, though, that handguns shouldn’t be lumped in with long guns because, in his experience, the former aren’t the ones inciting panic. “People walk in all the time with open carry handguns. No one’s freaking out. … My issue was why didn’t Doug McMillon and Walmart take a more middle ground approach. Like, ‘Hey, you can still open carry a handgun, but you can’t bring in a rifle or shotgun.’”
A Kentuckian named Leigh (who, like most of the people I spoke to, asked that her last name not be used) said she went to her local Walmart the day after the El Paso shooting, as she does at least once a week, and saw four customers inside openly carrying handguns. Usually, she says, this wouldn’t faze her — she’s a gun owner and a competitive shooter in a rural part of the state where firearms are a familiar sight — but in the wake of the shooting, it set off internal alarm bells.
”To be honest with you, it scared the shit out of me,” she says. “I knew a couple of [the people carrying] and I knew them to not be the kind of people I want to have guns in public.”
She says she was particularly uneasy seeing a man walk around with a revolver clipped to the pocket of his cargo shorts. “Like, good God. There’s no safety on that thing. I could’ve walked up behind him and grabbed it easy. It could’ve fallen out of his pocket, and any kind of kid could have grabbed it.” Compounding matters was the fact that there are many migrant tobacco workers from Mexico in her area at this time of year, and she couldn’t help but think of the El Paso shooter’s admission that he drove across Texas to target Mexicans specifically.
”I was shaking like a leaf when I came out,” she says. “I scooted out of there as fast as I could.”
In Kentucky, it’s legal to open carry without a permit, and since June, anyone 21 or older who is allowed to possess a firearm can carry concealed without a permit, too. Republican lawmakers argued that the previous requirements — a six-hour gun-safety training course, $60 application fee, and background check — were too burdensome, and getting rid of them would allow more people to protect themselves.
Cass, a retail worker in Missouri, says she works overnights and gets “some real characters” in the store. “I don’t like seeing it because you don’t know that person,” she says. “One wrong thing can happen and you have a shooting situation on your hands.”
Walmart employees participate in computer-based active shooter training once when they’re hired and again every three months. Jeanne, a former Walmart associate in Arizona, says she found it “kind of appalling to have to do that” when she joined the company, having just moved from a part of the Midwest where guns weren’t often seen or spoken of outside of a hunting context.
In Arizona, customers with holstered handguns were a daily sight at work. “You’re working there and you have somebody walking up and down the aisle with a gun on their hip. You don’t know if it’s a good guy or a bad guy. You don’t know if they’re crazy, if they’re gonna suddenly get mad,” she says. “It just made me wonder, ‘Why are they carrying a gun in here?’ What’s the purpose of that? Am I at risk? I can’t really go anywhere. I’m kind of stuck where I am. It was bone-chilling for me.”
She quit Walmart shortly after the August shootings, at the urging of her daughter.
James, a Walmart associate in eastern Washington, says he’s “kind of agnostic” on seeing people open carrying in his store. “Usually they don’t look too sketchy, so I’m not especially worried about them. I do know at least one customer who comes in wearing a full tactical vest where he’s got two guns and four clips on his vest, and he does all of his shopping that way.”
Open-carry advocates contend that visible guns act as a deterrent for would-be criminals, and many proponents of the Second Amendment argue that banning guns outright could turn stores into “soft targets” for shooters, like schools.
”If a criminal wants to come in and do something, it’s like an open invitation, because they know that no one but law enforcement would be able to defend themselves,” says Gretchen, a gun owner in Colorado.
Opponents of open carry say it can cause confusion for law enforcement when they respond to a shooting and serves mostly to intimidate the public, who have to discern the intent of the person carrying.
“Technically,” El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said at a press conference following last month’s shooting, the perpetrator “was in the realm of the law” until the moment he opened fire, because Texas is an open-carry state. The shooter was carrying an AK-47 and wearing ear protection, and “was surprised no one challenged him or shot him” when he walked into the store where more than 1,000 people were shopping, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety report obtained by the Texas Tribune.
“Customers and employees shouldn’t be the ones to decide whether someone coming into a restaurant or a retail outlet is open carrying or preparing to open fire,” says Watts. “The store should make sure they are protecting their customers even if lawmakers aren’t protecting their constituents.”
As part of its announcement, Walmart also said it would no longer sell ammunition for handguns and military-style rifles (though, as Holloway and others point out, it hasn’t banned certain popular hunting ammunition, such as the .308 caliber, that can also be used in AR-style rifles), and discontinue handgun sales in Alaska, the only state it was selling them in. In recent years it has gradually introduced stricter gun policies: In 2015, it stopped selling assault-style rifles, saying it would focus instead on hunting and sport shooting, and last year it raised the minimum age for gun and ammunition purchases from 18 to 21.
Its most recent move may seem like it could alienate a significant share of its customers — the NRA called the move “shameful” while the underlying sentiment behind the #BoycottWalmart hashtag did a 180 from anti-gun to pro-gun as soon as the new policy was announced — but the swift action of many of its corporate peers (representing trillions of dollars in annual sales) suggests that retail titans have determined that open carry is bad for business.
As New York magazine pointed out, only 19 percent of the US population lives in rural America, so Walmart’s base is really the suburbs: “Its moves reflect an acknowledgment that, in suburban America, guns are becoming more trouble than they’re worth for the company — if not for their political implications, then for direct perceptions of safety at Walmart.”
Karwoski, the Everytown policy director, says the action also sheds light on how Walmart is thinking about liability. “I can’t speak to their decisions and what they’re thinking now on the enforcement front, but certainly I think that the policy itself is an acknowledgment that the risk of having openly carried firearms is a bigger liability than it is to prohibit them.”
The movement seems to still be gaining steam. The #GroceriesNotGuns brigade has set their sights on Food Lion, a North Carolina-based supermarket chain with more than 1,000 stores, and Hy-Vee, a Midwest grocer with more than 245 stores. Last week, the chief executives of 145 US companies — including retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gap, and Levi Strauss & Co. — sent a letter to the Senate urging it to pass a bill that would mandate universal background checks and stronger “red flag” laws, which allow law enforcement to take guns from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
”We have a responsibility and obligation to stand up for the safety of our employees, customers, and all Americans in the communities we serve across the country,” they wrote. “Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable and it is time to stand with the American public on gun safety.”
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