Acknowledging that it underestimated the Obama administration's expectations about its involvement in gun control talks, Walmart said Wednesday company representatives would attend a meeting at The White House on Thursday to discuss firearms.
Walmart initially declined to have a representative attend the White House meeting, citing scheduling conflicts in a statement given to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
"Knowing our senior leaders could not be in Washington this week, we spoke in advance with the Vice President’s office to share our perspective. We underestimated the expectation to attend the meeting on Thursday in person, so we are sending an appropriate representative to participate," Walmart spokesman David Tovar said in a statement released late Wednesday morning. When asked for comment by The Huffington Post, a spokesman referred to the press release and didn't respond to further questions.
Walmart, the nation's largest gun retailer, also for the first time acknowledged publicly that it has been engaged in "ongoing conversations" with the White House and Congress after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December.
The White House task force, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, is charged with coming up with new proposals to regulate guns and will also include representatives from the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation in its meetings on Thursday.
Walmart currently sells firearms in more than 1,750, or roughly half, of its U.S. stores, though in recent years the company has seemed to waver on its commitment to selling guns. In 2011, five years after restricting gun sales to only a third of its stores, the retailer reintroduced firearms to many locations, citing customer demand.
Experts told The Huffington Post this week that despite appearances, tighter regulations on guns could benefit Walmart. One key proposal Biden is expected to put forth would force independent gun sellers to go to certified dealers like Walmart to conduct background checks on customers and process their transactions. If passed, such a law could send people who previously traded guns at shows and in their homes to Walmart stores, propelling the company's already skyrocketing gun sales even higher, experts say.
Currently, federal law allows individuals to sell guns to others without performing background checks or keeping records of the sale.
“If we instituted universal background checks, that would cut down the number of kitchen-table dealers and of course benefit places like Walmart,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit that lobbies for gun control. Such a policy would also make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, and thus "be part of a solution to a problem that has existed for decades," he said.
Other gun control measures likely being considered by Biden's committee would have a more certain negative impact on Walmart. Renewing the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, for example, would affect sales at the company, according to Rommel Dionisio, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. Dionisio estimates that Walmart, as the largest seller of firearms, is also a major seller of those tactical rifles which may soon be subject a ban.
The retail giant alone makes up 13 percent of total sales for Freedom Group, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster rifle used by the shooter in the Sandy Hook rampage, Freedom Group disclosed in a September earnings report.
But Walmart's clout in the industry is also what makes gun-control advocates so eager to get the company to join their side. "The bottom line is that Walmart is huge,” said Garen Wintemute, the director of the Violence Prevention research program at the University of California at Davis and a practicing emergency medicine physician. “It would be a very promising development if they would step up and do the right thing."
Advocates hope the company will consider the good PR it could gain by supporting the White House's initiatives. “I would think for Walmart it would be good policy and good business,” said Sugarmann. “I’ll add that if they’re going to choose to be a good public citizen, they should make it a policy not to sell assault weapons.”
It wouldn't be the first time Walmart's come down on the side of gun control. The company attracted the ire of pro-gun groups in 2008 when it partnered with Mayors against Illegal Guns to tighten gun sales restrictions. At the time, the NRA denounced the company's actions as “a public relations stunt” designed to “curry favor with politicians.”
If implemented, universal background checks would likely function as they do in California, where private sales of guns have been regulated for over 20 years, according to Phil Cook, a professor of economics and public policy at Duke University. In that state, almost all gun sales are required to be processed through certified dealers.
For some gun stores in the state, the background checks are a way to solicit new business from customers who end up buying ammunition and accessories, according to Charles Huntington, the owner of Huntington's Sportman's Store in Oroville, Calif. Still, Huntington says it's difficult for most stores to turn a profit from the time-consuming service, whose fees are capped at $10 per gun by law.
"I would be amazed if Walmart supported a national registration system," said Huntington. "It's too much of a hassle and there's no profit in it."
Yet Walmart, which does not currently sell firearms in California, would also be more equipped than smaller retailers to streamline and perhaps even monetize background checks. In the 2008 partnership with Mayors against Illegal Guns, the company agreed to a slew of new rules that went beyond the requirements of the law: videotaping transactions, implementing a computerized system that logs purchasers' crime histories and performing background checks on employees.