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What Walmart’s Decision on Semi-Automatic Rifles Means for the Gun Control Debate

4 minute read

Walmart announced this week that it would stop selling so-called modern sporting rifles at its stores, including the AR-15, a semi-automatic firearm akin to those used in some of the country’s worst mass shootings in the last few years.

The nation’s largest retailer says it’s essentially replacing rifles like the AR-15 with hunting rifles and sportsman shotguns, giving customers roughly the same number of firearm choices as before. But some gun experts see Walmart’s move as a harbinger that the retailer could eventually decide to get out of the gun business altogether—which could have unexpected implications for the gun control movement, since Walmart has stricter policies on gun sales than most firearm retailers in the country.

“I think the day is coming when it’s going to difficult to buy a firearm from Walmart,” said John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

While Walmart doesn’t release gun sales figures, it’s likely one of the country’s biggest gun sellers, if not the biggest. Roman said that without Walmart and its restrictions on gun sales, more buyers could be forced to the secondary market, where private sellers often don’t require background checks and don’t have gun sales policies that go beyond what is required by law.

“It’s an interesting conundrum for people who worry about the number of guns,” Roman said. “In the final analysis, Walmart’s decision [to stop selling modern sporting rifles] is good for society, but it’s not as simple as it looks, because if somebody buys these guns at Walmart and goes through a formal background check, it’s really unlikely that they’ll use them in a crime.”

In 2008, Walmart put in place stringent requirements on all gun transactions, including detailed recording of firearm sales, alerts when a gun bought from the retailer is used in a crime and expanded background checks for employees handling guns. The retailer also requires full approval from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which goes beyond the federally mandated minimum waiting requirement of three days to approve a sale. Many other retailers sell firearms after the waiting period is up even if there’s been no determination from NICS on the buyer’s criminal background.

The reason Walmart decided to stop carrying modern sporting rifles, including the AR-15, is because demand for those guns has been waning, a spokesperson said.

“This was something our customers weren’t really buying,” Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg said.

It’s unclear if demand for firearms like the AR-15, which was used in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., is declining nationally. One of the few estimates on how many guns might be in the U.S. comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which found that from 2011 to 2013, the total number of firearms produced and available spiked. The number of rifles and shotguns produced in the U.S. jumped from about 3.2 million in 2011 to 5.2 million in 2013.

Michael Bazinet, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says that Supreme Court cases upholding gun rights, as well as an expansion of concealed carry laws and more women taking up target shooting, have actually led to increased demand for guns across the board.

However, Roman believes Walmart is correct that interest in rifles and semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 may be decreasing, so the company has recognized that it’s not in its economic interest to continue selling them.

“The business case is the trade-off between people who don’t want to shop at Walmart because they’re available and those who buy these guns every two or three years,” Roman said. “For Walmart, that makes this an easy case.”

While Walmart wouldn’t provide gun sales figures, sales of semi-automatic rifles, which are only available at less than a third of Walmart’s stores, are likely a tiny percentage of the retailer’s bottom line, and more than half of all Walmarts sell no firearms at all.

Lundberg, Walmart’s spokesperson, says that the retailer will remove the rifles from its shelves within the next couple weeks. The ones that remain unsold will be returned to the suppliers.

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