Walmart announced last week that they no longer welcome customers who engage in “open carry” — carrying a gun, in public, for everyone to see. Kroger joined them within hours, and CVS, Walgreens and Wegmans followed suit before the end of the week. This week, Meijer, Aldi and Publix joined in as well.
Their decisions are not terribly novel: the retailers have simply made the same business decision that other corporate titans, including Target, Costco and Starbucks, made before. They’ve simply decided that eliminating open carry in their store, referred to by gun advocates as “constitutional carry,” is the right thing to do, particularly for the customers who don’t openly carry guns. (For the record, this decision simply eliminated open carry by private citizens and most gun and ammunition sales at Walmart; law enforcement officers will still be welcome to bring their weapons into the store, as will private citizens with concealed carry permits.)
This was all big news, but Walmart felt like a particularly betrayal to gun lovers, as the world’s largest brick and mortar retailer, by far the largest retailer in rural America and a major supplier of guns and ammunition — though it’s also stepping back from selling certain kinds of ammunition and even certain guns at some locations.
Walmart’s decision, though, makes sense. On August 3, a mass shooting in Walmart’s El Paso store killed 22 and wounded 24 more, and that came just days after a disgruntled employee murdered two co-workers and attempted to murder a police officer in a Mississippi store. Since those events and the national outcry that followed — but before the bans — at least one open-carry enthusiast in Missouri did what he called a “social experiment” testing Walmart’s dedication to the right to keep and bear arms, causing a panic; other people made threats leading to panicked evacuations that alarmed their staff and their customers, who feared they might be the next Americans to die in a mass shooting.
After the bans, one gun rights group naturally responded to the request by Walmart for customers to refrain from displaying weapons in their stores by encouraging its members to open carry.
Walmart’s decision has been hailed by investors and praised by many of their customers, and they’ve seen their stock price rise to an all-time high. Walmart has real fears of losing more valuable market share to competitors whose stores are gun-free, especially in the more liberal urban and suburban areas where Walmart would like to grow, and despite what Wayne LaPierre and the NRA say this seems to be the right thing for their business.
But there are millions of Americans who think it’s a terrible thing. They see this as one of their fundamental rights being curtailed and an open invitation for criminals to attack them and their neighbors.
For much of our history, some Americans have believed that the right to keep and bear arms is what ensures their freedom. As the old maxim goes, God made Man, but Sam Colt made him equal; private firearms ownership is said to have democratized (to some people) law enforcement in early America and supposedly allowed those who could obtain and effectively use guns to live without fear of being victimized by others who could obtain and effectively use guns. Many of the people who engage in open carry today do so because they believe they’re protecting themselves and everyone else by being armed; their ability to open carry, they believe, provides both protection to others and deterrence to a few — a tradition that they believe goes back to colonial times and a public service for which all of the rest of us should be thankful.
There are real problems with this view, starting with the fact that the old maxim about Sam Colt started as an ad to sell Colt revolvers, to the truth of who was allowed to own guns and when they were allowed to actually carry them, to the historical context about firearms, technology, property rights and the development of urban society.
Fundamentally, though, today’s America is entirely different from the world Sam Colt lived in, let alone the world of the 1780s and its call for a “well-regulated militia.” The guns are cheaper, deadlier and easier to use than ever before, and the actual dangers tend to be different from what we commonly believe. And every concept of property rights, freedom and society are far different today from what they once were, let alone what so many people erroneously believe they were.
At some point, our relationship with guns today has to change, too. Walmart’s decision is just a reflection of how a strong majority of Americans agree that change is needed.
I don’t say this as some sort of anti-gun absolutist. There was a time in my life, about 15 years ago, when I regularly carried a firearm for protection. My friend and client, Brenda Paz, had been murdered for helping law enforcement prosecute MS-13, and apparently I was next on their list. When the judge overseeing the case ordered that the U.S. Attorney, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service do everything appropriate to ensure my safety, the first thing I did (on their advice) was get myself a gun.
Within a few hours, I had a concealed handgun permit and my first handgun – a Sig Sauer P230 compact .380ACP in stainless steel, a weapon specifically designed for concealed carry. One of the agents tasked with investigating Brenda’s murder and protecting me helped me pick it out, counseling me to choose something I could really live with. I’ll never forget what he told me about carrying a gun, because I think he’s right: If you really do need it, you need it all the time. If you don’t need it all the time, you have to ask yourself whether you really need it at all.
Carrying that gun was a tremendous blessing for me, because it allowed me to go about my life (almost) just like I had before, with the confidence that I had deadly force at hand if I needed it. And much like at least some of the open (and concealed) carry enthusiasts complaining about Walmart this week, I did my best to be a careful, responsible, well-prepared gun owner, ready to protect others as well as myself.
But over time, I learned something that I wish more gun owners knew: Carrying a gun isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I learned that most people I encountered actually didn’t feel better knowing that I had a gun. And, though I tried to keep it concealed in a hip holster under a shirt or jacket, the people who inevitably did glimpse it frequently wondered why I had it and whether my gun or my presence put them in danger — like the staff and customers who panicked at that Walmart in Missouri. Even the people who knew and trusted me — knowing that I was a responsible gun owner who had been threatened — wondered if being near me in public exposed them to the same danger in which I’d found myself.
I also learned that carrying a gun — even with a license, training and a real need for it — doesn’t make me as worthy of that responsibility as real cops and soldiers are, and it didn’t make me an action movie hero. Yes, I had a real, articulable need to carry a firearm and I carried one of the best made and engineered handguns available on my hip — which would have been super cool to 16-year-old me, but I didn’t have the training or responsibility of a real cop and I wasn't any Jason Bourne.
And besides all of that, I’m also a criminal defense attorney who’s seen way too many news stories, public health reports and crime statistics to ignore the limitations and dangers of having armed citizens everywhere.
I needed my gun for a little more than a year, and I carried it everywhere, everyday. But then I stopped. Once the last of the trials connected to my client’s murder was over, I kept finding more and more times when I couldn’t justify having the gun on me, let alone force everyone else around me to have to think about it. And, like the agent said, once I didn’t need it all the time, I knew I probably didn’t need it at all. I haven’t carried it since.
I still have the gun, and I still have the permit. And there’s certainly a part of me that appreciates knowing that I could slide that holster under my belt and carry my gun if I really felt the need to do so. But I just don’t, so my gun stays locked away in a safe in my closet. I’m comfortable with that. I wish more of my fellow Americans would come to the same conclusion.