Walmart tells us that if Congress won't act on guns, a free market will

AUSTIN, TX - JANUARY 1: Art and Diana Ramirez of Austin with their pistols in custom-made holsters during and open carry rally at the Texas State Capitol on January 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. On January 1, 2016, the open carry law takes effect in Texas, and 2nd Amendment activists hold an open carry rally. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Credit: Erich Schlegel

Credit: Erich Schlegel

AUSTIN, TX - JANUARY 1: Art and Diana Ramirez of Austin with their pistols in custom-made holsters during and open carry rally at the Texas State Capitol on January 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. On January 1, 2016, the open carry law takes effect in Texas, and 2nd Amendment activists hold an open carry rally. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

The cliché has been the foundation of nearly every Republican stump speech in Georgia for the last generation: "You won't find my voters on the right or the left. You'll find them in Walmart."

For this reason alone, it’s conceivable that the nation’s most famous — and powerful — discount chain has just become an important conservative counterweight to the NRA in the debate over guns and violence in America.

One month ago, a young white supremacist launched an attack on Hispanics in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 22. Days before that, two Walmart employees were shot by another in a store in Southhaven, Miss. And then there was the previous weekend’s non-Walmart rampage in Odessa and Midland, Texas.

"It's clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable," Doug McMillion, president and CEO of Walmart, Inc., wrote in a lengthy letter to employees last Tuesday.

McMillon announced that the company would discontinue the sale of ammunition that can be used “in large capacity clips on military-style weapons,” and would cease selling ammunition for handguns. (Walmart stopped selling the AR-15 and similar rifles, as well as handguns, in 2015. Last year, it raised the minimum age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 21.)

The company will also bar customers — except for law enforcement officers — from openly carrying firearms in all Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in Georgia and other states that permit the practice. “We believe the opportunity for someone to misinterpret a situation, even in open carry states, could lead to tragic results,” McMillon said.

The National Rifle Association denounced the Walmart decision as a "shameful" capitulation to an anti-gun elite.

Otherwise, Republican silence surrounding the chain’s announcement has been deafening. Compare it to the loud beating that Delta Air Lines received in the state Capitol when it canceled a minor membership discount for the NRA in 2018, after the high school massacre in Parkland, Fla.

But Delta caters to those who can afford travel, has a liberal reputation on social issues — and, last year, also had its hand out for a tax break on jet fuel.

By contrast, consider Walmart’s footprint in Georgia: More than 200 stores, many in the economic hubs of rural Georgia, with 60,000 employees earning an average $14.32 an hour. Walmart is one of the state’s biggest tax collectors ($683 billion in sales tax passed along through its cash registers) and taxpayers: $197.8 million last year.

Walmart’s political action committee has given $143,000 to House and Senate GOP caucuses at the state Capitol over the last decade. The Walton Foundation has given $1.5 million to school choice causes in Georgia over the same period.

If the Georgia GOP were its own religious denomination, worship services would be held at the local Walmart — in the big-screen TV section, naturally. Walmart is the place where true-believers shop, so when it shifts on an important point of American culture, that is no small thing.

Congress reconvenes this week, for the first time since the back-to-back gun massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. In his letter to employees, the Walmart CEO endorsed stronger background checks for gun purchasers, and “red flag” legislation that would allow authorities to confiscate weapons from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

“We do not sell military-style rifles, and we believe the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban should be debated to determine its effectiveness,” McMillon wrote. “Congress and the administration should act.”

And if Congress doesn’t act, the free market will.

Walmart's PAC gave $1.2 million to congressional candidates (56% to Republicans) in the 2018 election cycle. Of that, $44,000 went to House incumbents from Georgia. But the chain's pure economic power is greater than its political clout. Depending on its future commitment to the issue, Walmart could set the bar on how gun sales are conducted in the U.S.

In his letter to Walmart employees, McMillon all but volunteered to do so. For free.

Guns have become a Big Business concern. On the same day McMillon published his letter, Cincinnati-based Kroger, the second-largest grocery chain in the country, declared it would no longer permit firearms to be openly carried on its premises.

Walgreens, the drug store chain, followed suit on Friday. So did CVS, another drug store outlet.

As they move into territory that Congress has eschewed, these multi-million, multi-billion-dollar corporations aren’t flying by the seat of their pants.

“In the risk-averse world of big business, prohibiting guns in retail stores is not just the right thing to do — it’s also the smart thing to do,” said Eric Tirschwell, managing director for Everytown Law – the litigation arm of the anti-gun violence group, Everytown for Gun Safety. “Businesses face real exposure to increasing insurance costs and costly lawsuits if customers are injured or killed.”

And voters — er, consumers — are giving corporate executives permission to enter the fray. Edelman Intelligence, a firm specializing in market analysis, this week released a poll of 1,000 U.S. adults indicating that 72% "would feel more favorable toward a company that actively supported gun safety laws, funded gun safety education and/or prohibited customers [from] bringing guns into its stores."

Active shooter drills are now common in public schools — a disturbing measure of what we’ve become. But a 2013 study conducted by the FBI found that the largest number of active shooter incidents occur on commercial premises.

Southern Insurance Underwriters, Inc., of Alpharetta has been operating in the Atlanta area for 55 years. It is a wholesaler of insurance products. A couple years ago, the company began offering active shooter insurance for businesses, churches, private schools and local governments.

“We’ve changed the name to ‘deadly weapon protection,’” explained Hugh Nelson, the company’s senior vice president. To allow for attacks with knives, explosives, chemical weapons, vehicles and other deadly tools to be considered part of the coverage.

One part of the policy offers protection against allegations of negligence, paying for attorney fees and court judgments. The more important part of the policy, Nelson said, is the single phone number a policyholder can call for crisis management services if the unthinkable happens.

Employee counseling, funeral expenses, media relations, reimbursement for loss of income can all be part of a tailored package, offered through Lloyds of London. “If a building needs to be torn down because of the stigma, it can pay for that,” Nelson said.

“What the deadly weapons protection coverage does is, it brings to bear a group of folks that have been there and done that. That know how to handle these situations. They can do it very objectively, professionally and get the business back on its feet as quickly as possible,” he said.

As with any other insurance policy, Nelson’s company is selling a hedge against disaster. Most business schools will tell you that it’s cheaper to address any unpleasant situation on the front end. That’s what Walmart is doing.