Walmart employees organize for gun safety at work

A gun counter in a Walmart store. Unnerved by recent shootings at Walmarts, employees of the retail giant are organizing to change its policies on guns. (Photo by Neil via Flickr.)

When a white-supremacist gunman armed with a semi-automatic assault weapon walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 and killed 22 people in a shooting spree targeting Latinx people, it was just the latest incident of gun violence to take place in a Walmart store.

A few days before the El Paso massacre, two people were killed in a shooting at a Walmart in Southaven, Mississippi. On Aug. 8, a man in a bulletproof vest carrying a rifle, a handgun, and 100 rounds of ammunition was arrested at a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri. There have also been recent shootings in Walmarts in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

All this violence is making some of Walmart's employees think twice about their safety working for the Arkansas-based company, which is the nation's largest private employer. Walmart sells guns in many of its stores, and it allows open carry in states where the practice is legal, including every state in the South. That means workers have to sell guns to people whose motives they don't know and provide customer service to strangers bearing firearms.

Some associates want to see that change.

Gabriela Enriquez spent five years working at the Walmart Supercenter in El Paso's Ciela Vista Mall, the site of the recent shooting. She's spent the last five years at another Walmart in El Paso, where she still works and where some employees from the store where the shooting took place have been transferred. Speaking through an interpreter, she told Facing South that the company has a lot of work to do to make its employees feel safe.

"Todos estamos todavía asustados porque aquí se maneja un ambiente tenso todavía y estamos rodeados de policías encubiertos, lo quiere decir que nos hacen sentir que esto no se ha terminado," Enriquez said. ["We're still scared because there's still a tense environment and we're surrounded by police … it makes us feel like this isn't over."] And she was emphatic that corporate management isn't doing enough about it.

Walmart's current method of active shooter training — a video that associates watch about once a year — is "real corny" and doesn't mirror the type of active shooter situation that's become all too prevalent, said Janie Grice, a former Walmart employee in Marion, South Carolina. "The video that they show, the store is practically empty," she said.

Cat Davis, an employee at a Walmart in New Bern, North Carolina, said she'd like to see the company institute some type of hands-on training so associates have practiced what they should do in case of a shooter. "Management needs to have a plan in place," she said. "When you're in that situation, sometimes your mind can't think exactly what you rehearsed, but just something in place and which we have seen demonstrated would help a lot."

Walmart has taken steps to restrict gun sales in the past. For example, the company hasn't carried handguns in its stores since 1993 because market research showed that customers felt uncomfortable with pistols in a department store. It stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2015, and after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, it raised the age of purchase for guns from 18 to 21. In the wake of the El Paso shooting, the company announced it would remove from its stores violent video game displays, which can include noise that sounds like gunshots. But it's still selling actual guns, and it's still letting people carry them in its stores.

"In the South, and with me being a Black woman, it just makes me uneasy for any old person just to have a gun on their hip," said Davis. "I do not feel comfortable." At the gun sales desk, Enriquez said, "la compañía tiene un sign que dice que 'no puedes tocar armas sin un permiso,' ¿pero quien revisa permisos? Nadie." ["The company has a sign that says, 'no touching the weapons without permission,' but who checks permission? No one."]

Employees have also raised concerns about how the company is communicating with them about safety issues. The Walmart stores in El Paso are frequented by people from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and many store employees are Spanish speakers. CEO Doug McMillon wrote an open letter to employees last week decrying the violence, promising to "foster an inclusive environment," and saying the company was formulating a "thoughtful and deliberate response" — but it wasn't translated into Spanish.

"El jefe, el CEO se dirigió a la comunidad solamente de Walmart, no se dirigió a los customers hispanos, no se dirigió en español,” Enriquez said. ["The boss, the CEO, he directed it only to the Walmart community, it wasn't directed to Spanish-speaking customers, it wasn't directed in Spanish."]  For the Spanish-speaking employees and customers like herself, who support El Paso's economy from both sides of the border, she said, the statement wasn't enough. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

Enriquez, Davis, and Grice are all affiliated with United for Respect, which works with retail employees to advocate for fair labor practices. The group is speaking out in response to the recent shootings. "We feel a profound lack of confidence in the ability of both elected officials and Walmart's leadership to protect us from violence in our stores," it said in a statement. "Active-shooter trainings and greater store security might help stop the carnage in the event of a mass shooting, but Walmart must do much more to actually prevent shootings from happening in the first place."

In-store employees aren't the only ones raising the alarm about Walmart's gun practices. Thomas Marshall, who works as a category specialist in one of Walmart's e-commerce offices in California, sent messages over email and the Slack app to around 20,000 other corporate employees encouraging them to walk out in protest of the retailer's gun policies. He said a group of about 30 people has been organizing employees in an effort to change the company's gun policies.

Marshall said he thinks the struggle over Walmart's response to gun violence in its stores is really a struggle over the heart of the company. The company's founder, Sam Walton, was an avid outdoorsman, and Walmart ties its decision to carry guns, mostly hunting rifles, to that history.

"Walmart has been trying to aggressively position itself as a progressive e-commerce business," Marshall said. "But there's such huge ties to the traditional store side and the values associated with that. This feels like a pivotal point for the company where they have to decide what their values are."

There's broader support for a change to Walmart's gun policy. Marshall and his co-organizers, under the banner Walmart Walkout, started a petition on asking the company to stop selling guns. "We value Walmart and our fellow associates, but we are no longer willing to contribute our labor to a company that profits from the sale of deadly weapons," states the petition, which has over 64,000 signatures. A separate petition asking Walmart to stop selling guns has over 50,000 signatures. And six Democratic presidential candidates have voiced their support for a change in the company's gun policy.

For the time being, however, the guns are still there — some on sales racks and others carried by customers. Grice, the former Walmart employee from South Carolina, said that for her friends who still work for the company, every workday now comes with a new anxiety.

"Right now you can't just work in peace," she said. "You've got to be in fear."