People walk outside a Walmart store in San Leandro, California. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Walmart stepped forcefully into the national gun debate on Tuesday, saying it would stop selling ammunition that can be used in military-style assault rifles, would discourage its customers from openly carrying guns in its stores, and would call on Congress to increase background checks and consider a new assault rifle ban.

One month ago, a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, putting pressure on the company to respond to the wave of mass shootings across the country. It is the nation’s biggest retailer, and a large seller of firearms and ammunition.

Walmart said it made the announcement after weeks of discussion and research about how best to respond. The decision is in line with public opinion polls that favour more gun controls, and advocates, gun violence victims and others have increasingly called for action.

The company said that after “selling through our current inventory commitments,” which could take several weeks, it would stop selling certain short-barrel rifle ammunition and all handgun ammunition.

The retailer, whose sheer reach has reshaped communities nationwide, largely avoids publicly wading into politics. That made Walmart’s statement on Tuesday even more notable. It called on leaders in Washington to enact stronger background checks to “remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger.” The company said it also supported a new debate over an assault rifle ban.

“As we’ve seen before, these horrific events occur and then the spotlight fades,” Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said in the statement. “We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.”

Supporters of gun rights sharply rebuked Walmart’s decision. The National Rifle Association predicted in a statement that Walmart would lose business to other retailers, “who are more supportive of America’s fundamental freedoms.”

“The strongest defence of freedom has always been our free-market economy,” the group added. “It is shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of the anti-gun elites.”

Walmart several years ago stopped selling the type of assault-style rifle that was used in the El Paso shooting, but the company will now cease selling effectively any ammunition that could be used in those weapons.

Firearms are not a particularly vital business for Walmart. But the company’s evolving policies signal a broader business strategy.

Probably more than any other retailer, Walmart serves Americans of every socio-economic and cultural stripe, which means that any public policy stance the company takes will inevitably alienate many. And while it remains a dominant force in rural America, Walmart is betting much of its future on growing its e-commerce business in coastal cities and suburbs, where potential shoppers tend to hold more liberal views, including on the need for more gun restrictions.

With 1.5 million employees, Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, most of them the cashiers and managers in its network of 4,000 stores. However, the company is also trying to build its online business to compete with Amazon by recruiting younger engineers and developers, who are attracted to companies that profess social values that reflect their own.

“Any decision that a company that is that big and that ubiquitous makes is going to please some people and upset others,” said Aron Cramer, chief executive of BSR, a nonprofit group that advocates for social responsibility in business. “It is extremely hard not to take action when people are dying at one of your stores.”

On Tuesday, gun-control advocates celebrated Walmart’s announcement as evidence that most of the country supports more firearms restrictions. “They have their pulse on what Americans want, and the Senate should take note,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

McMillon said the company would focus its gun business entirely on supplying rifles and ammunition for hunters.

“We have a long heritage as a company of serving responsible hunters and sportsmen and women, and we’re going to continue doing so,” he said.

Walmart described its new limits on ammunition sales, which includes no longer selling handgun ammo, as “dramatic.” The decision is expected to reduce the company’s share of the nation’s ammunition market to as low as 6 per cent, from 20 per cet. The company said last month that it accounted for about 2% of the nation’s firearm sales.

The retailer said it would no longer sell handguns in Alaska, its last state with such sales. Walmart stopped selling handguns in every other state in the 1990s but continued to sell handgun ammunition across the country.

The effort to discourage customers from openly bringing firearms into stores, which other companies, like Starbucks and Target, have tried in recent years, could prove challenging and divisive. Store workers will have to be trained how to request that customers not openly carry their weapons, and the laws can vary by state.

Shortly after Walmart’s announcement, the grocery chain Kroger said it too was requesting that its customers not carry weapons into its stores.

Regarding open carry in Walmart’s stores, McMillon cited “multiple incidents since El Paso, where individuals attempting to make a statement and test our response have entered our stores carrying weapons in a way that frightened or concerned our associates and customers.”

“These incidents are concerning and we would like to avoid them,” he added.

Some experts said the new policy might have the opposite effect, inspiring supporters of gun rights to openly bring firearms into Walmart stores.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see people force a confrontation and try to ruffle Walmart’s feathers,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Gun Fight: the Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The store employees are the ones who will have to solve the problem without getting themselves shot.”