(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 6, 2019, a makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting that left a total of 22 people dead decorates the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas. - One man had three assault rifles, extra-large magazines and a gas mask. Another had over 18 weapons, including sawed-off shotguns, AR-15s, and a grenade launcher. Earlier this year, the two might not have drawn the attention of US law enforcement. But ever since a young racist slaughtered 22 at a Texas Walmart, and another man murdered 10 in Ohio three weekends ago, the FBI has arrested at least seven right-wing extremists in what appears to be a more earnest crackdown on white nationalist threats in the US. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP)MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
A makeshift memorial for victims of the shooting that left 22 people dead at a mall in El Paso, Texas, last month © AFP

In 2012 Walmart’s then chief merchandising officer Duncan MacNaughton celebrated soaring gun sales, which were up 76 per cent. He bragged about the great firearms displays inside the group’s biggest Supercenters: “It’s about being proud of the merchandise that we have.”

These days the world’s largest bricks-and-mortar retailer seems less proud of its guns. It announced this week it would stop selling ammunition that could be used in semi-automatic rifles. It will no longer sell handguns in Alaska, having already dropped them in all other states. It will ask customers to stop openly carrying guns in stores.

Sometimes the reasons behind shifts in corporate strategy are hard to fathom. The whim of a new CEO? A survey of customers? Consultants’ advice? Pressure from shareholders?

In Walmart’s case it is clearer. Over the past few years, dozens of customers and employees have been shot dead at its stores.

Last month 22 people were killed in El Paso. They included a 15-year-old,
a couple shopping with their two-month-old baby and a man who died protecting his nine-year-old granddaughter.

In July a disgruntled ex-employee walked into a Walmart in Mississippi and shot dead two former colleagues.

There were more fatal shootings in Walmart stores in the past few weeks than in the UK last year. 

It is not a new problem. In 2014, at a Walmart in Idaho, a two-year-old boy reached into his mother’s handbag, took out her gun and shot her dead. In 2017 a man killed three people at a Walmart in Colorado. This strange sub-genre of American carnage boasts an astonishing death toll.

On the level of the merely terrifying rather than the horrific, shoppers at Walmart have had to endure gun nuts turning up heavily armed just to use their right to “open carry”.

After this week’s decision to scale back the sale of guns and ammo, there was a predictable reaction from the National Rifle Association, which slammed Walmart for caving to “anti-gun elites”.

It certainly carries risks. Walmart has 5,000 stores across the US and 1.5m employees. It is bound to alienate some customers and staff in a country where three in 10 American adults own guns.

But the largest US retailer is practised at taking the pulse of the American consumer.

An Edelman survey published later in the week showed that 68 per cent of Americans would feel more favourable towards a company whose chief executive supported mandatory background checks on gun purchases, and 55 per cent would feel more positively towards a chief who backed a ban on semi-automatic rifles.

Although Walmart’s move is welcome, braver were the companies who did not wait for repeated massacres on their premises, such as Citigroup and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Citi, as a regulated bank, did encounter some empty threats from the same feeble Republican politicians who are failing to pass even modest gun control measures in Congress.

Dick’s, though, after a short-term dip, has clearly benefited. Its stock price has outperformed. In stores where it removed guns altogether it has enjoyed a sales boost and it is now weighing ditching them entirely, replacing them with more sportswear. It should. That category has better margins, is more popular with young people — and doesn’t kill the customers.

tom.braithwaite@ft.com

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