At the Wal-Mart Supercenter 10 miles east of the Las Vegas strip, about 45 shotguns and rifles including Rugers, Remingtons and Mossbergs are on display toward the back of the store, past the eyeglasses, to the left of arts and crafts. The guns rest in a locked glass case, a string of Christmas lights made from red shotgun shells hangs below. “Silent Night” plays overhead.
It’s Christmastime in America, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest seller of guns in the country, is ready for any Santa list. At the Las Vegas store, a middle-aged woman talks with a cashier to clear her background check and purchase a child-sized Crickett 22 long rifle, which comes in black and pink for $114 in a box emblazoned: “My First Rifle.” In her cart is a blowup camouflage-clad Santa Claus.
For Wal-Mart, guns -- and especially ammo -- are just good business. After years of mass shootings in America culminating in the San Bernardino killings, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has carefully steered clear of the gun-control debate. When firearms are selling well, Wal-Mart tries to sell more. When they aren’t, it replaces them with other merchandise. No matter what, the retailer focuses on giving customers what they want.
"Over the years, we’ve been very purposeful about finding the right balance between serving hunters and sportsmen and ensuring that we sell firearms responsibly," said Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick. "Our merchandising decisions are largely based on customer demand."
The company doesn’t dispute that it’s selling a potentially dangerous product. In 2008, it was among the first retailers to embrace more rigorous gun-sale measures. These included videotaping purchases and waiting for FBI clearance on each transaction, among the recommendations from a coalition of mayors led by Michael R. Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg News’ parent company Bloomberg LP.
“Wal-Mart is definitely the leader in this area,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a Washington-based nonprofit. "I feel like they are approachable on it. It isn’t like with certain other actors where you know the answer you are going to get. They aren’t ideologues. They will hear you out.”
Wal-Mart, which sells firearms at about half its 4,500 U.S. stores, doesn’t report revenue from gun sales. But it and other big box retailers, including Cabela’s Inc. and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., accounted for about 20 percent of the estimated $3.8 billion in sales by gun manufacturers last year, according to Brian Ruttenbur, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets. Wal-Mart probably has a much bigger share of the $2.7 billion ammunition market because its scale allows it to leverage steep discounts from the bullet makers, he said.
The company’s decision earlier this year to stop carrying AR-15 military-style rifles was also purely business, according to the company. When demand weakened for the rifles, rather than pull them from shelves, the retail giant ran a big sale to move the remaining inventory quickly and replace it with more profitable guns. And it continues to offer AR-15 ammunition, one of its most popular firearm items.
“If Wal-Mart really wanted to make an impact on the industry, they would stop selling the ammo, but they make too much money,” Ruttenbur said. “You go to Wal-Mart to buy your ammo because it’s cheap there.”
AR-15s were another story. While military-style rifles are currently one of the hottest industry products, with almost 5 million sold, they have never been Wal-Mart’s bread and butter. Instead, the vast majority are purchased at specialty gun retailers, which offer a better selection and more knowledgeable sales people, said Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association Inc., an advocacy group.
The guns also created a problem for Wal-Mart: the cyclical nature of their sales, with demand surging every time the gun- control debate resurfaces, made it hard for the data-driven retailer to determine how many it needed to stock and how much display space to provide.
The company has shifted back and forth on how much emphasis to put on its gun business. In 2006, it began phasing out these sales in about a third of its stores, citing a lack of demand, and used the space for exercise equipment. It then brought firearms back in hundreds of locations in 2011 after sales surged nationally in 2009 and 2010. A year after the change, it said gun sales were up 76 percent and ammunition rose 30 percent.
In 1993, amid a surge of crime, Wal-Mart said it was starting to phase out sales of handguns. While the decision could have been a chance to take a stance against crime, the company said it was a business move, because its customers felt uncomfortable shopping for groceries and school supplies in a store that also sold handguns, according to reports at the time. It now sells handguns only in Alaska, though it still sells handgun bullets nationwide.
For shoppers at the Las Vegas superstore, the gun area is a popular spot.
“It’s just convenient because we were here buying other stuff anyway,” said Jason Pierce, 31, who was in line to buy about 50 rounds of ammunition for his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. His girlfriend leans on their shopping cart, stocked with two bags of potato chips, a package of chewy Chips Ahoy cookies and a pack of ladies’ razors, among other merchandise.
“With ISIS and everything like that taking off," he said, “we’ll probably be seeing a lot more gun sales.”
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