The Private Sector Leans into Gun Regulation

This week, Walmart and Kroger announced that they will no longer allow open carry in their stores.  Walmart also announced that it would be ending sales of handgun ammunition and some kinds of assault rifle ammunition.  These announcements represent the latest examples of the privatization of the gun debate.  As the political system has either proven gridlocked (at the federal level) or largely pro-gun (at the state level), advocates for stricter gun regulations have increasingly turned to private businesses as a vehicle for reducing gun violence.

In one sense, Walmart and Kroger’s decisions are a good illustration of why this is a good strategy.  These two companies are the two largest grocery stores in the United States and their decisions about what kinds of gun carrying will be allowed in their stores are likely to be more impactful than anything most state legislatures might choose to do about public carrying.  That’s because when most people go out “in public” they usually are not exclusively spending time in public spaces, but instead are going to places like Walmart and Kroger that may be “public” in the colloquial sense, but are privately owned businesses.

While the trend of private gun regulation is important, the impact of these particular decisions might be narrower than they seem at first glance.  Both companies’ policies prohibit open carry but specifically allow concealed carry[1] where it is legal (which is most of the country).  This makes a big difference because even though open carry is more high profile, concealed carry is far more common—one 2015 study found that about two thirds of people who carried guns in public always carried concealed and those who publicly carried the most often were the most likely to carry concealed rather than openly.  So Walmart and Kroger may still have many gun carrying customers even after this week’s changes.

Even when it comes to open carrying, advocates will need to watch closely how these policies are implemented.  Kroger’s statement for example said that they would be “respectfully asking that customers no longer openly carry firearms” in their stores, but that will likely be insufficient. Many state laws require businesses that wish to prohibit guns on their property to use specific kinds of signage to let customers know.  Some statutes just require some kind of conspicuous sign stating that no guns are allowed, but others go into much more detail, including requiring that the signs be readable from a certain distance or that the font and pictures on the sign be of a certain size.  Other states even provide or require businesses to use specific signs that are issued by state administrative agencies.

Still, even with those caveats, these retailers’ decisions represent a step forward for gun control advocates and hopefully will serve as a rallying point for repeating this strategy with other private actors with the power to regulate guns.

A final note about this episode is worth highlighting—the NRA’s response:

The strongest defense of freedom has always been our free-market economy. 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. . . .

A couple of things jump out at me here.  The first line’s reverence for free-market principles, even in the face of this defeat, is perhaps a signal that the NRA is not willing to pursue legislative responses to these kinds of decisions.  In the past, the NRA has supported “parking lot laws” that require businesses to allow customers to bring guns into parking lots as long as the gun is kept locked and out of sight.  So far, no significant efforts have been made to force businesses to allow gun owners to carry into the businesses themselves and the NRA’s reaffirmation of the “free-market economy” in this context may signal a continued reluctance to go there.

The second line’s reference to “anti-gun elites,” while it may seem like boilerplate pro-gun rhetoric, is actually an interesting acknowledgement of how effective a privately focused strategy can be.  The NRA is probably right that socio-economic elites are disproportionately likely to favor stricter gun regulations.  Rather than running away from that fact, gun control advocates should embrace it.  Socio-economic elites almost by definition have disproportionate influence over big corporations like Walmart and Kroger.  The NRA has long succeeded at using the places where it has disproportionate power, like rural-dominated state legislatures and the US Senate, to advance its agenda.  Perhaps the other side of the gun debate has finally decided to do the same.

[1] Walmart’s statement said it would allow customers to concealed carry who have “a license” but it is unclear how this will apply in states like Arizona where no license is required.