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Last week, the floodgates on gun safety opened after Walmart declared that gun owners were no longer welcome to carry their weapons openly in its stores, even in states that broadly permit open carry. The announcement could have been just another one-off, with no wider impact. Instead, several other major U.S. retailers quickly followed suit. So, what changed?

Retailers turn up the heat on gun safety

The latest wave of announcements on shopper safety began on September 3, when Walmart announced a new policy on open carry in a public letter to its employees. Also on that date, Kroger also revoked what had previously been a more permissive open carry policy.

Other companies quickly followed suit with new policy announcements of their own, including CVS, Walgreen’s, Wegmans, Meijer and Albertson’s.

Last Friday, the politics blog The Hill ran a list of open carry policies at the top 30 leading retailers and noted that Costco also discourages open carry, in addition to Starbucks, Target, Texas-based H-E-B, and the Food Lion stores of parent company Royal Ahold Delhaize.

Companies affirming “no gun restrictions” in response to inquiries from The Hill include TJX (TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods), Macy’s and Aldi’s. The remaining stores on the list did not respond, with noted brands such as Amazon brick-and-mortar stores, Apple, Lowe’s, Best Buy and McDonald’s.

The building of a gun safety movement

The new cluster of policy announcements by retailers contrasts sharply with the fits-and-starts nature of previous efforts by companies to limit open carry in states that permit it. 

Back in 2013, for example, Starbucks revoked its previous tolerance for open carry, and made a “respectful request” for gun owners to refrain from carrying guns in its stores.

There was little discernible follow up until the following year, when Target made a similar announcement. Target used the same “respectful request” language while summing up the shopper safety angle with this common sense observation:

"This is a complicated issue, but it boils down to a simple belief: Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.”

Other major retailers were slow to follow suit, though by 2015 at least five restaurant chains also publicly discouraged open carry, including Whataburger, Chipotle, Panera, Sonic and Chili’s.

In 2016, Levi Strauss & Co. discouraged open carry in its stores by formal announcement, repeating the now-standard “respectful request” language.

Last year Levi’s also upped the ante by lending its muscle to grassroots gun control efforts. The company announced that it would partner with the group Everytown for Gun Safety, the umbrella organization for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Still, no other retailers drew media attention to their open carry policies until the new Walmart announcement.

Retailers turn up the heat on gun safety

Last week, TriplePundit conjectured that the rise of online shopping has made a key difference in the willingness of retailers to address gun safety in open carry states.

Shopper safety has always been a consideration for retailers, and the e-commerce trend has increased the pressure on brick-and-mortar stakeholders to ensure safe spaces for shoppers.

The e-commerce angle does not fully explain, though, why so many retailers have followed Walmart’s lead in recent days.

One additional factor could be the threat of legal action.

Regardless of state laws that broadly permit open carry, retailers may be held responsible for failing to take adequate steps to ensure shopper safety. That issue came up in a pair of lawsuits involving Kroger earlier this year, and that may have motivated other retailers to take preemptive action.

Brand reputation, activism and gun safety

Lawsuits draw unwanted attention, and that brings up another important factor, brand reputation.

Until very recently, brand reputation among retailers in open carry states was entwined with policies advocated by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Retailers risked public blowback when attempting to discourage open carry in their stores.

More recently, Moms Demand Action has challenged the NRA for the hearts and minds — and voting power — of residents in open carry states and elsewhere.

Concurrently with the rise of Moms Demand Action, the NRA has inflicted a good deal of damage on its own brand in recent months.

Those twin trends have provided retailers with far more wiggle room to adopt sensible gun policies that make shoppers feel safe in stores.

In a common sense world, the sight of a non-uniformed stranger carrying a gun into a store for no particular reason should be enough to send other shoppers walking toward the exits, if not racing out pell-mell in a panic.

By spreading that common sense message to millions of shoppers in their daily lives, retailers will play a critical role in de-normalizing state laws that broadly permit open carry, and help contribute to a legislative environment that brings public policy into agreement with public opinion on the rights and responsibilities of gun owners.

Image credit: Joanna Nix/Unsplash

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Walmart's decision recent decision on gun safety could have served as a one-off announcement, but many retailers quickly followed suit. So what changed?
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