(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
As Vice President Joe Biden plotted his task force’s plan of action on gun control this week, he invited representatives Walmart to the White House to talk about it. That makes sense—as we detailed last month, the retail giant is the biggest seller of weapons and ammunition in the United States. Stakeholders as far-flung as the hunting groups Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever were invited to meet with Biden’s task force, so Walmart surely has a place at the table.
In fact, many progressives and gun control advocates argue this is a very positive development .The thinking goes like this: Walmart would stand to benefit from a strengthened background check system, because independent sellers would have to go to a certified gun retailer (like Walmart) to conduct background checks—or might stop selling guns altogether, thus sending more customers Walmart’s way. The chain also must protect its image as a responsible, family-friendly store: it previously partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to adopt tougher standards for gun sales.
So maybe Walmart can hop on board and advocate for the White House’s gun control package, thus lending a significant voice and lobbying power to the good guys’ side, and creating a crucial rift between gun retailers and manufacturers.
That all sounds good—if it happens like that. (Store officials haven’t yet announced any position on gun control following the White House meetings.) But there’s significant reason to suspect it won’t work out so splendidly. Clearly, the best of both worlds for Walmart would be a strengthened background check system that drives new customers to its stores, and no assault weapons ban.
Gun sales are a key part of Walmart’s recent sales spike, and have shot up 76 percent over the past two years. Walmart doesn’t sell handguns, and so assault rifles make up a significant portion of its gun inventory and thus its increasing sales. Meanwhile, there’s big pressure on Walmart from manufacturers not to stop carrying assault weapons. Freedom Group, a large gun manufacturing conglomerate and maker of the infamous Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, said in its most recent financial report that “In the event that Wal-Mart were to significantly reduce or terminate its purchases of firearms, ammunition and/or other products from us, our financial condition or results of operations and cash flows could be adversely affected.”
Walmart has already shown great hesitancy to pull back whatsoever on assault weapons sales. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, as competitors like Dick’s Sporting Goods yanked all assault rifles from shelves temporarily, Walmart didn’t stop selling a single assault weapon.
So: would Walmart be able so support the White House package upfront, perhaps even winning some special goodies that would drive customers specifically to its stores for background checks, while quietly killing the assault weapons ban behind the scenes? It’s happened before, in a very similar dynamic.
During the healthcare reform battles, the Obama White House was eager to get health insurance companies behind the reform push, and they had every reason to do so—the individual mandate meant millions of new customers. So the industry signed on. But there were many other aspects of the legislation it didn’t like, like the medical loss ratio and the public option. So behind everyone’s back, the health industry funneled massive amounts of money—$102.4 million dollars—to the US Chamber of Commerce to fight those aspects of the bill. This dark money was exceptionally difficult to track, but National Journal did it, months after the final legislation was passed.
Walmart, today, already sends significant amounts of money to strong opponents of gun control. The Walmart 1% blog found that between 2010 and 2012, Walmart gave over $1 million to candidates backed by the NRA. They note that “among politicians with 2012 grades from the NRA, 84% of the Waltons’ 2010-2012 cycle contributions went to candidates with scores between A+ and A-.”
So the retail giant already has some money baked into the anti-gun control cake in Washington, and could certainly promise more to these members if they vigorously oppose an assault weapons ban. Moreover, the dark money problem looms large. As Lee Fang has noted, the NRA has a half-dozen legal entities, many of them able to accept undisclosed donations to mount attack ads and lobbying campaigns. Walmart could easily dump money into these groups and it’s likely we would never know.
An outcome where the background check system is strengthened but there is no assault weapons ban is quite possible: even some conservative members of Congress with ‘A’ ratings from the NRA are coming out for better background checks. Walmart, ever the canny DC operator, must know that this is in reach. I would personally be shocked if the two-step strategy described above isn’t what they end up pursuing.
In that scenario, more gun buyers would be herded to Walmart, where there are plenty of assault rifles helpfully on sale. This is not a good result for gun control advocates. A full assault weapons ban should be enacted—and if Walmart is serious about being a good citizen and backing responsible gun measures, it should lead the way by discontinuing all assault weapon sales. Until it does that, beware any role it plays in the reform process.