Walmart, Guns and Money

Robert Jennings is founder of Get Trained Be Ready of Searcy, one of two companies licensed by the state to provide active shooter response training to private enterprises, according to the Arkansas State Police.  “The faster that somebody who is armed and trained can engage, the sooner it’s over,” he says.
Robert Jennings is founder of Get Trained Be Ready of Searcy, one of two companies licensed by the state to provide active shooter response training to private enterprises, according to the Arkansas State Police. “The faster that somebody who is armed and trained can engage, the sooner it’s over,” he says. (Karen E. Segrave)

The question was so unsettling it brought a company spokesman up short: What if Walmart becomes a target of choice for mass shootings?

“I would never want to speculate on that,” spokesman Randy Hargrove said recently from corporate headquarters in Bentonville as Walmart assessed one of the roughest few days of its history. “No business or retailer is immune to violence, but what we’ve taken so seriously is our training and preparation.”

Mass shooters, of course, have struck at schools, churches, offices and malls; “going postal” became a crude shorthand after multiple killings at post office facilities starting in the 1980s.

But fatal shootings at Walmart stores in Mississippi and El Paso, Texas, on July 30 and Aug. 3 rocked the world’s biggest retailer, and worries deepened after a Missouri man entered a Springfield Walmart Aug. 8 with a tactical rifle, loads of ammunition and a bullet-resistant vest.

The Springfield gunman never fired, simply filming himself with a phone as panicked shoppers ran. He later told authorities that he was testing the limits of his gun-carrying rights. A day later, police arrested a Florida man after he posted this threat on Facebook: “3 more days of probation left then I get my AR-15 back. Don’t go to Walmart next week.”

The largest private employer in the world, with about 2.2 million workers, Walmart was born in gun-loving Arkansas and sells 2% of the nation’s firearms, as well as 20% of ammunition. Thousands of Arkansans who grew up in the 1970s and later remember getting their first shotguns and ammo at Walmart, a consumer segment the retailer is still eager to serve. Company founder Sam Walton was an avid shooter up to his death in 1992 and had several bird dogs called Ol’ Roy, namesakes of Walmart’s dog food brand. Remington Arms Co. even made a limited edition Sam Walton model 20-gauge shotgun with an engraving of Walton in gold on one side and his signature on the other.

But Walmart stands now in the crossfire of America’s great gun debate, facing demands from Democratic presidential contenders, a teachers union and others to stop selling firearms altogether. Critics also argue the company should ban customer-carried guns from its stores, a policy change that would likely cause a backlash.

Shifts Over the Years

“We’ve not announced any changes to our current policy,” said Hargrove, the Walmart spokesman, but he did note significant shifts over the years. “For example, in 2015 we stopped selling modern sporting rifles, the AR-15-style firearms. Then in 2018 we increased the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21 from 18. … We’ve had a longstanding commitment to sell firearms safely and in a compliant manner, and we have measures in place that go beyond what’s required by federal law.”

Walmart, which doesn’t sell handguns except in Alaska, requires a passing background check for every rifle and shotgun purchase. Federal law allows sales to go through if a background check lags for more than three days, but Hargrove said Walmart won’t budge until the check comes back with no red flags.

Walmart watchers say it’s unlikely to ban firearms from stores in places where carrying them is legal. A bloody-minded gunman wouldn’t abide by a ban, several experts said, and Walmart might lose customers whose personal sense of safety depends on being armed.

“If you are a shopper and the big-box stores you shop at allow concealed carry, do it. If they don’t, shop elsewhere,” advised Robert Jennings, a gun expert and founder of Get Trained Be Ready, a Searcy company that offers all kinds of firearms training, including active shooter readiness.

Of course other safety advisers, seeing guns as a risk rather than a cure, suggest shopping only at outlets that restrict firearms.

When the El Paso gunman began firing on the Walmart parking lot, particularly targeting Mexicans, store manager Robert Evans raced ahead into the store and shouted “Code Brown” repeatedly into a microphone. Walmart employees, recognizing the active shooter signal, rushed to herd shoppers toward exits in the back.

The attack killed 22, but authorities praised the quick response by Evans and his Walmart associates for saving many lives. One worker, Gilbert Serna, ushered nearly 100 shoppers out of the store and stashed patrons with disabilities in empty steel shipping containers outside. Two dozen people were wounded, including two Walmart employees, whose injuries weren’t life-threatening.

Increased Training

“We haven’t gotten into our specific security measures, but we have increased training for our asset protection associates at the store level and through our training academies across the country,” Hargrove said. “We’ve added de-escalation training, and it focuses on how to handle difficult situations. It could be an argument or shoplifting. And we require our associates to take active-shooter training in orientation and again on a quarterly basis. …

“Historically associates have taken that training through a computer-based training module, and last month we made it possible for them to use virtual reality.”

Hargrove said Walmart assesses security needs constantly at its 4,700 domestic stores, and deploys extra resources as necessary. “That could be using seen or unseen uniformed associates, third-party security or off-duty police officers. There’s no armed security by our associates, but if there are uniformed off-duty police officers, they will be armed.”

But big-box stores built for serving crowds of customers are not designed for safety in a shooting, Jennings, the firearms instructor, said.

“Walmart, Target and the like all have things in common. Lots of open space, but it’s enclosed on the perimeter without windows. Exits are as per fire code, but in the vastness of the store, most exits that aren’t related to the front end aren’t really noticed. To top it off, there is a cacophony of impulse items to catch your attention and distract you from your surroundings. This is how to make money, but it’s not in the best interest of safety.”

Jennings offered several suggestions for retailers to improve safety through awareness. “Some simple things might be to enlarge the exit signs beyond the minimum requirements … make them big enough to see, large enough to notice.” A law enforcement veteran advising Get Trained Be Ready also suggested making airport-style announcements regularly over store loudspeakers, reminding shoppers to notice the nearest emergency exits as they shop.

‘A Test of Darwin’s Law’

“Big boxes can get complacent about emergency egress,” Jennings added. “After all, what they are primarily designed for is to be used as a fire escape. But when is the last time a Target, Walmart, T.J. Maxx or Lowe’s burned down? I can’t remember it happening. Today’s emergency egress planning calls for something different. We have to take into account the active-shooter scenario. … Employees must know where these exits are all over the store.”

Reassuring nervous shoppers is complicated by Americans making political statements by carrying firearms publicly; common images on social media show Starbucks or KFC customers carrying pistols in holsters and bearing rifles slung over their shoulders.

The Missouri gunman’s open exhibition of rifle and gear, while unquestionably provocative and frightening, was not clearly illegal. Laws in Missouri, as in Arkansas, generally allow carrying long guns if the user isn’t menacing. Laws in both states also authorize licensed owners to carry concealed handguns, and licensing regulations require the state to issue licenses to all applicants who meet legal requirements.

“Open carry and concealed carry generally refer to handguns, which can be concealed,” said David Chipman, a former agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives and now a senior policy adviser at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The national public service law center, based in San Francisco, is named for Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who survived a 2011 gun attack in Tucson that killed six and wounded 18.

“The legality of carrying long guns, like the shotgun in your pickup, is recognized by most states,” Chipman told Arkansas Business. “But in recent years open carry has become a political act or a free-speech demonstration. In the last election cycle, gun owners were showing up with rifles at political events. Someone in the suburbs of Detroit decided to test Michigan law by marching into a local police department with an AR-15. You can imagine that scene.

“Some of these tests seem to be more a test of Darwin’s law.”

State by State

Hargrove said that while other businesses routinely post “no firearms” notices, Walmart abides by local and state regulations for each store. “Missouri is an open-carry state, and as long as the state and local jurisdictions allow for that, our policy has been to follow their guidelines.”

The American Federation of Teachers and several Democratic presidential candidates have joined a chorus asking Walmart to stop selling firearms, but Hargrove said the company was working to “fully understand the many issues that arise out of what happened.”

The shooting in Mississippi, at a store in the Memphis suburb of Southaven, appeared to be a targeted shooting rather than a terror attack. The gunman killed a store manager and another employee, then shot a police officer who was saved by his safety vest. Police gunfire killed the shooter.

“Stores have the ability as long as it isn’t against local laws to decide whether or not to allow firearms,” said Chipman. “You even see gun stores with signs forbidding loaded weapons. They don’t want an accident. When I worked as an ATF agent, I had occasional meetings with Walmart officials and they were serious about following gun regulations. I think there’s a pressure on corporations to acknowledge and try to support the cultural norms of their customers.”

For Walmart, he said, that might mean continuing to sell guns. “Other companies have decided not to sell guns outright anymore,” Chipman continued. “The CVS drug chain decided that, culturally, it was best for them to stop selling cigarettes.”

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, in a statement after the El Paso attack, said that when the worst happens, the company’s workers “counter with our best selves,” standing firm and healing together. He also waded into the political debate by suggesting a study of restoring the federal ban on assault-style weapons (See McMillon Calls for Reconsidering Federal Assault Weapons Ban.)

“We are a learning organization, and as you can imagine, we will work to understand the many issues that arise from El Paso and Southaven, as well as those that have been raised in the broader national discussion around gun violence,” the statement said. “We will be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses, and we will act in a way that reflects the best values and ideals of our company.”