OPINION — No need to rush back to Washington, senators. Walmart is here now. Along with everyday low prices and a surprisingly good produce section, the country’s largest retailer announced last week that it will also take a leadership role in the fight to end gun violence since Congress can’t or won’t.
The memo came Tuesday from the company’s CEO, Doug McMillon. With two shootings at Walmart stores in the last two months, including the horror unleashed in El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people, McMillon told employees that the firm would take a series of steps in an effort to protect them as well as customers in its stores.
Along with Walmart’s decision to stop selling all handguns and several types of ammunition, McMillon said he is “respectfully requesting” that customers not openly carry firearms in its stores, even in states where it would be legal to do so.
He also called on Congress to finally debate expanded background checks and other ways to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people: “The status quo is unacceptable.”
Before you rush to call McMillon an “anti-gun elite,” as NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre did, first know that McMillon is a gun owner whose first job in high school was unloading trucks at Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas.
He’s also a dad and the person ultimately responsible for the safety of Walmart’s 1.5 million employees and countless more customers who walk through its doors every day. And he’s one of several CEOs in America today stepping into the leadership vacuum on issue after issue that Washington either can’t or won’t solve.
A flip of the script
As Congress and the White House have become more polarized and more dysfunctional, mayors, governors, and state legislatures have become mini-D.C.’s — from conducting diplomacy with heads of state to passing climate change legislation.
But the movement of the business community to lead in areas of public policy is new. When Fortune 500 companies start conducting oversight of Washington, and not the other way around, something is deeply broken.
Before the gun issue, it was the minimum wage, which the House voted this summer to increase, but Congress as a whole hasn’t changed since 2009.
Last year, Amazon set the minimum wage for its employees at $15 per hour, and pointedly said it would also be lobbying Congress for a federal increase that would “have a profound impact on the lives of tens of millions of people and families across this country.”
In April, Bank of America went even further, raising the minimum wage for its 200,000 employees to $20 per hour.
Along with gun safety and wages, four automakers, including Ford, signed a deal in July with the state of California to agree to stricter auto emissions after President Donald Trump said he’d loosen tougher Obama-era standards.
Trump tweeted that the car companies were “CRAZY” for promising to clean their cars’ emissions and last week threatened legal action to block the agreement.
Unlike many in Washington who privately hate what the president does, but publicly say nothing (you know who you are), CEOs have been some of the few leaders in America willing to speak out, even if it could hurt their bottom lines.
After a Trump rally this summer broke out in chants of “Send her back” at the mention of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser tweeted, “I find it depressing that the most important political office in the world is turning into the face of racism and exclusion.”
When the president said there were “good people on both sides” of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, CEO Jamie Dimon wrote a letter to his employees at JPMorgan Chase, “Racism, intolerance and violence are always wrong. It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
Dimon also led the effort last month at the Business Roundtable to declare that a company’s responsibility rests not just with its shareholders, but also its employees, its partners and its community.
That was an echo of an earlier, and remarkable, letter from Larry Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, to tell his investors that the firm will be evaluating the companies it invests in based in part on their commitment to the long-term benefit of employees and communities, since governments were failing to do so. “The world needs your leadership,” he wrote.
When Walmart made its announcement on gun sales, the NRA warned that its business would be decimated. But by the next day, its share price was higher than before.
Analysts also speculated that Walmart might be out on a limb alone in the business community. But by Friday, CVS, Walgreens and Wegmans had all followed Walmart’s lead, asking customers in open-carry states not to bring their guns into stores.
It’s oddly comforting to see corporate America exercising basic common sense when Congress and the White House seem incapable of it. But benevolent CEOs are no substitute for democracy, and enlightened self-interest will never be the same as the public interest, which elected leaders in Washington are supposed to be working together to serve.
So, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, you may not be ready to act on background checks, but Walmart said it is ready to open-source its technology that cross-checks federal, state and local systems in gun sales.
And, President Trump, since you can’t seem to make a decision on gun safety, CVS already did. Since you may not care about that, they’re also having a sale on Sharpies that you’re really going to love.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.