Wal-Mart shuns Confederate flag, why not guns?

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: Are companies shunning the Confederate flag expressing sincerity or opportunism?
  • Let's celebrate a rare moment of consensus in a divided nation, even if we haven't moved forward on gun control

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The cascade of political and commercial interests now distancing themselves from the Confederate flag raises the question of whether they're expressing sincerity or opportunism.

Conservative politicians in South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi are calling for the Confederate flag to be taken down from their state capitols. Big companies such as Wal-Mart, Sears, eBay and Amazon have announced they will stop selling items that feature the Confederate flag image.
Great. Who cares whether they're sincere or not?
    It should not have taken the shattering tragedy of racially motivated mass murder to startle the nation's conscience about the display of the Confederate battle flag, memorably and accurately dubbed a "treasonous tatter" by the conservative New York Sun.
    But such are the ways of history, which stalls, stutters and moves according its own mysterious rhythms.
    Errol Louis
    The important thing about the current, historic step forward is that it's happening freely, quickly and without fear, force or coercion. We have many reasons to criticize the nation's commercial and political leaders, but the events of recent days demonstrate they are concerned about staying in tune with the mood of American consumers and voters, which is exactly as it should be.
    "We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer. We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment -- whether in our stores or on our web site," a Wal-Mart spokesman told CNN.
    Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon said he had no idea the company had Confederate imagery among its 7 million products and decided to discontinue selling them within seconds of hearing about it.
    "To my surprise, we found some [items] and decided to stop selling those products," he said. We just don't want to sell products that make anyone uncomfortable. We want everybody to feel comfortable shopping at Walmart. We want everyone to feel comfortable working at Walmart."
    It's easy to point out the inconsistency between McMillon's swift decision on Confederate symbols and his more nuanced and problematic stance on selling guns at Walmart stores, the largest firearms dealer in the country.
    "Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters and people who shoot at sporting clubs," McMillon told CNN. "We believe in serving those customers. We have for a long time."
    That neatly sidesteps the ongoing debate about gun control and how to sensibly regulate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
    "After every mass killing -- Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and now Charleston -- there were calls for more effective gun control. Sadly, one study found that in some 60 incidents where at least four people were killed, the shooters had obtained their weapons legally," write the editors of the New York Observer.
    "We are not so naive to believe that stricter gun control laws would have thwarted the shooter's ambitions. But we do believe that a rational discussion about guns, gun availability and mental health is very much needed."
    Don't expect Wal-Mart to join that discussion.
    Earlier this year, a federal appeals court -- one step below the Supreme Court -- ruled that Wal-Mart could block a shareholder resolution submitted by a church congregation that would have urged Wal-Mart's board to monitor "products that especially endanger public safety and well-being, risk impairing the company's reputation, or offend the family and community values integral to the company's brand."
    The church that sponsored the resolution is Trinity Church, the wealthy and powerful Episcopal congregation seated at the foot of Wall Street, and the particular product they had in mind were high-capacity rifles, often dubbed "assault weapons" by critics.
    Wal-Mart fought tooth and nail against allowing shareholders to vote on whether to reconsider selling the rifles, arguing successfully in court that the measure would interfere with the company's day-to-day operations.
    So, any self-congratulations the company might want to express over its Confederate flag decision should be tempered by the reality that Wal-Mart, like other multinational corporations, is not a social justice organization.
    But that shouldn't discourage Trinity Church or other gun control advocates from trying to change the company's mind.
    The sudden wave of national sentiment in favor of shunning the Confederate battle flag brings to mind the words, often mistakenly attributed to Gandhi, that a trade unionist named Nicholas Klein delivered in a 1918 speech: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you."
    That is the history of the civil rights movement, which is in the middle of scoring a victory by changing minds, hearts and attitudes about the Confederate flag. The movement may not have won all that it wants on gun control and other matters, and the nation still faces important questions about how to detect, contain and combat racial extremists.
    But right now would be a good time for those who spent years battling the offensive use of the Confederate flag to enjoy a rare moment of consensus in a divided nation.