Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Walmart Leads the Way

Ian Ayres

 Ian Ayres, Zachary Shelley, and Fredrick E. Vars

              In the lead up to the election, Walmart removed guns and ammunition from sales floors of its U.S. stores that sell firearms, in attempt to prevent theft of firearms if stores are looted amid civil unrest.  And then, when its assessment of the likelihood of civil unrest ebbed, it nimbly changed course and returned these items again to its shelves.

              These sensible moves are far from the first time Walmart has shown leadership in trying to assure that it was responsibly marketing products that can be violently misused.  Last year, it stopped selling ammunition that can be used semiautomatic rifles and the year before it raised the minimum age to purchase guns or ammunition to 21.

But can a single gun retailer make a dent in gun violence?  Our new research suggests that it can.

             In 1994, Walmart stopped selling handguns at all of its locations in every state except for Alaska. Then in 2006, Walmart stopped selling firearms altogether in more than half of its stores.  But the company partially reverse course in 2011 and began increasing the number of stores selling rifles and shotguns.  We tested the impact of these policy changes on suicide and homicide.

              There are reasons to be skeptical that Walmart’s policy changes would have a significant impact.  The United States is awash with gun dealers.  There are more than 62,000 federally licensed dealers, more than the number of grocery stores or pharmacies.  But not all dealers are created equal.  In any given month, more than two-thirds of Americans visit a Walmart store. Even with its self-imposed restrictions, Walmart remains the nation’s largest gun dealer. 

              Another reason for skepticism about the possible impact of Walmart’s decisions is that many gun suicides involve someone else’s firearm or firearms purchased years earlier.  Still, a substantial number of suicides do involve recently acquired firearms.  And making gun acquisition even marginally more difficult could reduce gun ownership over time.  Having a firearm in one’s home substantially increases the risk of suicide.

              In fact, in a forthcoming statistical analysis we find that Walmart’s 1994 decision to stop selling handguns reduced firearm suicides without increasing non-firearm suicide.  From 1994 to 2005, controlling for a variety of legal, social and demographic variables, counties with Walmart stores experienced a 3.3 to 7.5% reduction in the gun suicide rate (without an increase in non-gun suicides).  Our estimates suggest that Walmart’s decision to stop selling handguns has saved between 425–998 lives every year.  Between 1994 and 2005, this represents more than 5,000 lives saved.  On the other hand, Walmart’s 2006 and 2011 decisions to discontinue then resume the sale of rifles and shotguns in many of its stores did not significantly impact suicide.  The greater effect of the 1994 no-handgun policy makes sense.  Seventy-five percent of firearm suicides involve handguns. 

              The Walmart example shows that the decisions of private businesses can significantly reduce gun violence.  This is not to say that public policy has no role.  To the contrary, many public policy interventions have been demonstrated to reduce gun violence, especially gun suicide.  Gun sales have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns about increased risk of suicide and domestic violence homicide. But public policies have mitigated the surge in some states.  For example, states like New York where gun shops have been closed as non-essential businesses and states with licensing requirements have experienced a reduction in firearm sales.              

Walmart’s recent decision to restrict firearm displays should be applauded because it reduces the chance that firearms from its stores will be looted and fall into the hands of individuals who would misuse them.  But our estimates underscore the possibility that corporations can play a broader role in mitigating the country’s gun suicide crisis.  Walmart has led the way over the years with a series of self-imposed firearm sales restrictions.  Its decision in 1994 to stop selling handguns likely has saved thousands of lives.  Customers and employees at other substantial retailers, such as Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s (which still sell handguns) and Dick’s Sporting Goods (which has eliminated firearm sales at some of its stores), would do well to take note.  It is time for more corporate executives to show leadership on reducing gun violence.

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