NEW YORK — Walmart says it will discontinue the sale of handgun and short-barrel rifle ammunition and also publicly request that customers refrain from openly carrying firearms in stores even where state laws allow it.
The announcement comes just days after a mass shooting claimed seven lives in Odessa, Texas, and follows two other back-to-back shootings last month, one of them at a Walmart store.
The Bentonville, Arkansas-based discounter said Tuesday it will stop selling handgun ammunition as well as short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber used in military style weapons, after it runs out of its current inventory.
It will also discontinue handgun sales in Alaska. Walmart stopped selling handguns in the mid-1990s, with the exception of Alaska. The latest move marks its complete exit from that business and allows it to focus on hunting rifles and related ammunition only.
"In a complex situation lacking a simple solution, we are trying to take constructive steps to reduce the risk that events like these will happen again," according to a memo by Walmart's CEO Doug McMillon circulated to employees Tuesday afternoon. "The status quo is unacceptable."
The retailer is further requesting that customers refrain from openly carrying firearms at its Walmart and Sam's Club stores unless they are law enforcement officers. However, it said that it won't be changing its policy for customers who have permits for concealed carry. Walmart says it will be adding signage in stores to inform customers of those changes.
Last month, a gunman entered a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people with an AK-style firearm that Walmart already bans the sale of and marking the deadliest shooting in the company's history. Texas became an open carry state in 2016, allowing people to openly carry firearms in public.
Walmart's moves will reduce its market share of ammunition from around 20% to a range of about 6% to 9%, according to Tuesday's memo. About half of its more than 4,750 U.S. stores sell firearms, or around 2% of all U.S. firearms. Most firearms sales are done through thousands of unaffiliated gun shops or gun shows, not big retail chains.
A number of gun control activists praised Walmart's moves, while gun manufacturers such as Vista Outdoors and Smith & Wesson parent company American Outdoor Brands Corp. saw their shares fall.
Other companies have responded to public pressure to restrict gun sales, including Dick's Sporting Goods, which announced in March it would stop selling firearms and ammunition at 125 of its 700-plus locations. But supporters of stricter gun laws say Walmart's latest steps should have an outsized influence because of its clout, sending a strong message to Congress as well as other corporations.
"Walmart deserves enormous credit for joining the strong and growing majority of Americans who know that we have too many guns in our country and they are too easy to get," said Igor Volsky, executive director and founder of Guns Down America, in a statement. "That work doesn't end with Walmart's decision today. As Congress comes back to consider gun violence, Walmart should make it clear that it stands with Americans who are demanding real change."
The National Rifle Association posted a tweet attacking Walmart's announcement.
"It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites. Lines at Walmart will soon be replaced by lines at other retailers who are more supportive of America's fundamental freedoms," it said.
The nation's largest retailer has been facing increasing pressure to change its gun policies by gun control activists, employees and politicians after the El Paso shooting and a second unrelated shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people. A few days before that, two Walmart workers were killed by another worker at a store in Southaven, Mississippi.
In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Walmart ordered workers to remove video game signs and displays that depict violence from stores nationwide. But that fell well short of demands for the retailer to stop selling firearms entirely. Critics have also wanted Walmart to stop supporting politicians backed by the NRA.
The retailer has long found itself in an awkward spot with its customers and gun enthusiasts. Many of its stores are located in rural areas where hunters depend on Walmart to get their equipment. Walmart is trying to walk a fine line by trying to embrace its hunting heritage while being a more responsible retailer.
With its new policy on "open carry," McMillon noted in his memo that individuals have tried to make a statement by carrying weapons into its stores just to frighten workers and customers. But there are well-intentioned customers acting lawfully who have also inadvertently caused a store to be evacuated and local law enforcement to be called to respond.
Walmart joins a string of other retailers and restaurants including Starbucks, Target and Wendy's in asking customers not to openly carry their guns when they visit their premises. But they are not enforcing an outright ban because they don't want to put their employees in confrontational situations.
Walmart says it hopes to help other retailers by sharing its best practices like software that it uses for background checks. And the company, which in 2015 stopped selling assault rifles like the AR-rifles used in several mass shootings, urged more debate on the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban while also calling for the government to strengthen background checks. McMillon says Walmart will send letters to the White House and the Congressional leadership that calls for action on these "common sense" measures.
Over the last 15 years, Walmart had expanded beyond its hunting and fishing roots, carrying items like assault rifles in response to increasing demand. But particularly since 2015, often coinciding with major public mass shootings, the company has made moves to curb the sale of ammunition and guns.
Walmart announced in February 2018 that it would no longer sell firearms and ammunition to people younger than 21 and also removed items resembling assault-style rifles from its website. Those moves were prompted by the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.
In 2015, Walmart stopped selling semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 style rifle, the type used in the Dayton shooting. The retailer also doesn't sell large-capacity magazines. Dick's Sporting Good stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2018.