By Lauren Etter and Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg News (TNS)
AUSTIN, Texas — Managers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Texas have a new task to add to their list of duties: asking customers if they have a permit to carry a handgun.
To comply with state liquor rules, the world’s biggest retailer sent a written notice last month to stores that sell alcohol, telling managers to ensure that customers who openly carry firearms under a new law have licenses. Cashiers or door greeters who see someone with a gun are to alert the highest- ranking employee, who is to approach the customer and ask to see the paperwork.
“We do try to ensure that people have a licensed firearm,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick. “We are giving direction to our store employees to ask for a license as our management sees appropriate.”
The notice was sent out in anticipation of the Lone Star State’s open-carry law, which went into effect Jan. 1. It made Texas the nation’s most populous state to allow citizens with a permit to carry handguns openly in a holster.
The measure has put retailers in a quandary, forcing them to take sides in one of the nation’s most fraught debates. Gun- rights activists are boycotting stores that forbid firearms, saying people shouldn’t be punished for exercising their rights. Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are shunning stores that allow customers to bear arms, saying no one should have to shop where they feel unsafe.
Stuck in the middle are retailers loath to risk losing business from either side. Dozens of stores and restaurants across Texas, including San Antonio-based HEB Grocery Co., one of the state’s largest food retailers, have banned openly carried guns. That’s incurred the ire of activists who have vowed to shop elsewhere. Others, such as Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., have chosen not to ban firearms carried legally, inviting the scorn of gun-control advocates promising a boycott of their own.
Wal-Mart’s position is unusual because many of its stores sell beer and wine. That’s put the company in the cross-hairs of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which prohibits unlicensed handguns in establishments that sell such products for off-premises consumption. An establishment can lose its liquor license if it “knowingly allows” a person to bring an illegal firearm on the premises, said Chris Porter, spokesman for the agency.
Previously a shopper could have been walking the aisles with a concealed weapon — legal in Texas for two decades — and store clerks wouldn’t have known. Under the new law, the only way to ensure compliance is to ask a customer with a gun for a permit.
“Now that it’s open carry, that creates a new space that you have to cover,” said George Kelemen, chief executive officer of the Texas Retailers Association. Stores like Wal-Mart want “to make absolutely sure that the message they convey is, ‘We welcome your patronage, but we sell alcohol and we don’t want to risk losing the ability to do that.”’
Some companies are trying to walk a fine line by publicly opposing guns in their Texas stores, while stopping short of posting state-issued signs that serve as a legal notice that firearms are prohibited. The coffee giant Starbucks Corp. has requested that customers who aren’t law-enforcement personnel refrain from bringing firearms of any kind into stores, but hasn’t issued a ban, according to spokeswoman Jaime Riley. Target Corp. has also asked customers not to carry guns openly, even though it hasn’t displayed the signs prohibiting the practice, said spokeswoman Molly Snyder.
That balancing act isn’t sitting well with gun-control advocates. The Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has begun targeting stores that have publicly opposed the open-carry law but haven’t displayed the official signs prohibiting it. The group is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that advocates for stricter laws. The ex-mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.
“The strongest statement businesses can make for their customers’ safety and care is getting that sign up,” said Alexandra Chasse, a spokeswoman for the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Wal-Mart, which itself sells rifles and shotguns, says it’s asking customers to show a pistol permit only in Texas stores that sell alcohol. When it comes to allowing guns in stores nationwide, the company says its policy is to follow all local, state and federal laws, said Nick.
Still, its stance has begun to trouble gun-rights activists as they walk into their local Supercenter with pistols on their hips.
“I find it offensive,” said C.J. Grisham, president of gun- rights group Open Carry Texas, who has heard from members who shop at Wal-Mart that they have been asked for permits. “I don’t want to be treated suspect by a place that I’m shopping at.”
(Etter reported from Austin and Pettypiece from New York)
©2016 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Walmart via Wikimedia Commons