This is not Sam Walton’s America.
Children are outfitted for the first day of school with bullet-proof backpacks that fearful parents purchased along with pencils, crayons and erasers.
Grade school teachers learn the protocols of active shooter drills, highly aware that their split-second decisions may mean life or death to their students.
None of these grim realities is what Walmart’s founder would have wanted for the United States. Quite the opposite.
Yet Walmart has been thrust into the center of America’s ongoing and intractable debate about guns, murder and mass slaughter. For many years the company was one of the top sellers of firearms and ammunition. Then one of its stores in El Paso, Texas, became the scene of carnage when a right-wing racist went hunting for Latino victims to gun down.
On Sept. 3, Walmart announced that it will scale back its footprint in gun and ammunition sales. The company will no longer sell “short-barrel rifle ammunition such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber that, while commonly used in some hunting rifles, can also be used in large capacity clips on military-style weapons.” It will also discontinue sales of handgun ammunition. It will continue to sell guns and ammunition for hunters and sport shooters.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon framed the decisions as a response to a number of factors. Foremost, of course, was the El Paso attack in August, in which dozens were shot and 22 people died. That rampage followed the shooting deaths of two Mississippi Walmart store managers by a disgruntled employee.
But there are likely other reasons as well, more in line with the business acumen that the famously frugal Walton was known for: risk management, loss aversion and careful control of image.
Walmart’s brand is Americana.
A visit to the outstanding Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — a testament to the vision of Walmart heiress Alice Walton, where admission is free — usually also brings people to the Bentonville town square, where a museum to Walmart is located.
The square is a pristine distillation of the charm and tranquility we associate — nostalgically and perhaps erroneously — with American small towns of a time gone by.
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Walton’s Ford F-150 truck is displayed in the museum. One of his shotguns and a monogrammed hunting bag are in the front seat.
But it’s becoming harder these days to look at the casual display of hunting weapons without thinking of the twisted contemporary culture of death that waves the bloody banner of “gun rights.” Even in the rural communities Walton aimed to serve, so at home with hunting rifles and other weapons, guns increasingly are the totems of a conservatism that has curdled into an ideology of paranoia and hate.
Walmart, in its announcement, asked people to refrain from openly carrying firearms in its stores.
It’s not a big ask for 2019.
A 20-year-old walked into a Springfield, Mo., Walmart shortly after the El Paso mass shooting. He wore body armor, carried a loaded military-style rifle and had a semiautomatic on his hip. He filmed himself on a cellphone, wanting to test what he might term the company’s “respect” for the “Second Amendment.”
He accomplished panic. The store was evacuated, as managers understandably feared a mass shooting. He’s been charged with making a terrorist threat despite the fact that Missouri is an open-carry state.
Here’s a notable shift: Increasingly, Americans are not soothed by the presence of visibly armed people as they shop for basic household items. They don’t think “good guy with a gun.” They think, “Is this a mass shooter?”
Those who desire guns and ammunition still have plenty of places to shop.
And whatever your assessment of Walmart — foe, friend or somewhere in between — there is no disputing that the company has always been able to gauge the shifting winds of the public’s buying habits, whims and desires.
Walmart’s continued movement away from firearms, outside of hunting and sport shooting, should be viewed as an astute retailer’s read on the American public. Gun culture in America as it has evolved — or, rather, degenerated — is a liability. It’s not good for business and it’s not good for community life.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @msanchezcolumn.