Why Walmart will keep selling guns

Story highlights

  • Walmart is under pressure to stop selling guns after the Charleston massacre
  • Walmart CEO: "Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters"

(CNN)Confederate flags are off the shelves at Walmart. But still up for grabs: guns.

Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, was the first to announce plans this week to remove Confederate flag products from its stores after Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church. The company was hailed by many for quickly responding to the uproar over the flag. But it has since come under pressure to also stop selling guns in response to the nation's latest mass shooting.
"I would hope that stores like Walmart would recognize the danger of having these guns displayed right next to an aisle away from microwave popcorn and and Xbox games," said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who has pressed for gun control since 20 children were shot and killed at a school in his state in 2012. "I'm not terribly confident that a 21-year-old Walmart clerk is going to sell guns responsibly or be able to give customers the kind of advice they need on how to responsibly use that gun."
    The debate over the Confederate flag has also raised broader questions about where the line should be drawn for retailers that sell other questionable or offensive products.
    While Amazon and eBay and many other smaller retailers also joined Walmart in ending sales of the Confederate flag, accessories featuring the swastika, posters of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and books denying the Holocaust are still readily available online. Critics have since called for such items to be taken down, as well.
    But when it comes to guns, don't expect Walmart to stop selling firearms anytime soon.

    An integral part of the company

    CEO Douglas McMillon said this week that the sporting goods department is an integral part of the company. As a part of Walmart's goal of selling firearms primarily for the purposes of hunting and sports, it does not sell handguns, a policy dating back to 1993; nor does it sell high-capacity magazines. And customers can only purchase firearms in-store, not through Walmart.com.
    Guns for sale at a Wal-Mart, July 19, 2000.
    Walmart stores carrying guns strictly adhere to firearms sales rules that govern each state, a spokesman said. The company also takes numerous additional safety measures such as videotaping all guns sales transactions and requiring store associates to complete a certification program before they are allowed to handle firearms.
    "Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters and people who shoot sporting clays and things like that," McMillon said in an interview with CNNMoney's Cristina Alesci. "We believe in serving those customers, we have for a long time, and we believe we should continue to."
    And there's one major factor that makes the sale of the Confederate flag and the sale of guns two starkly different considerations Walmart and other companies: public opinion.
    By the time retailers began announcing that they would stop selling flag merchandise this week, it was already clear that the the public was overwhelmingly on their side.
    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was widely praised Monday when she called on the flag to be removed from her state's Capitol grounds, in an announcement that brought together colleagues from both sides of the political aisle. Other public officials quickly followed suit in Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky, declaring that it was time to remove images of the rebel flag.

    Guns are a more complicated issue

    Public opinion on guns is far less straight-forward, with Americans closely divided on the importance of protecting the rights of gun owners versus controlling gun ownership.
    Jason Maloni, a crisis communications expert at LEVICK, said the lack of consensus on gun control and the demand for firearms across the country gives little incentive for companies to stop selling them.
    "Retailers pay very, very close attention to what consumers say and at the end of the day, they make an economic decision," Maloni said. "If the product is legal, if the product is desired by the community and the sales are strong, you can expect them to carry it."
    Still, gun safety advocates say companies such as Walmart can be an important part of the national dialogue on the politically thorny issue.
    Shannon Watts founded the gun reform advocacy group Moms Demand Action after the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. She said Walmart could be a powerful voice in the campaign to reduce gun violence, including by advocating for all gun buyers to be subject to background checks.
    "There's absolutely a role in this country for American businesses and restaurants and retailers to play," Watts said.
    Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords -- one of the victims of a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that killed six people -- is a gun-owner. In fact, he remembers buying a shotgun at a Walmart in Texas many years ago after going through a background check.
    Kelly, who has become a vocal public advocate responsible gun ownership since the Tucson shooting, said in an interview Wednesday that calling for Walmart to stop selling guns is not the answer. Instead, Kelly said, the public should pressure the retailer to become a leading voice on gun safety.
    "It would be great to see a retailer like Walmart say hey, everybody should get a background check before buying a gun, just like they have to do here at Walmart," Kelly said. "It would be great to have Walmart on our side of the debate."