A Walmart in Bentonville, Ark., on Black Friday last year. The retailer is halting sales of assault rifles.
Walmart said on Wednesday that it would no longer sell high-powered rifles in its stores in the United States. The decision followed years of public pressure on the retailer to stop selling some of the most lethal weapons associated with many of the nation’s mass shootings.
The move predated the fatal shootings of two TV journalists in Virginia on Wednesday, and authorities have said the gunman in that attack used a handgun, a type of weapon the company does not sell.
Walmart, the nation’s largest seller of guns and ammunition, attributed its decision to lower consumer demand for such military-style rifles, not gun politics. It said that it was adding to its offerings of shotguns and other weapons used by hunters.
The decision put Walmart’s gun sale policies back in the spotlight as debates over gun control erupted again because of the Virginia shootings. Gun control advocates viewed the company’s action as significant because similar types of weapons were used by shooters in recent massacres, including an attack on a Colorado movie theater by a gunman who killed 12 people, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 20 children and six adult staff members died.
After nine people were gunned down inside a church in Charleston, S.C., in June, the chief executive of Walmart, Doug McMillon, indicated in an interview with CNN that he wanted to curb sales of such weapons. The company had also been under fire from politicians in urban areas, where it has been trying to expand, because of its gun sale policies.
Gun control experts said they hoped the decision would prompt other major retailers, like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s, to follow suit.
A Walmart spokesman, Kory Lundberg, said the retailer would stop selling modern sporting rifles, which are similar to the AR-15 assault rifle but are refashioned for the hunting market. He said Walmart would no longer sell any weapons that accept high-capacity ammunition magazines, the kind that can hold multiple rounds of ammunition.
Mr. Lundberg said that the rifles were currently carried at fewer than a third of Walmart’s roughly 4,600 stores across the country, and would be removed from those locations within the next week or two as the stores restocked for the fall season.
“It was done purely based on customer demand,” Mr. Lundberg said. The assault-style sporting rifles, he said, were not “something customers were looking for and buying when they came into our stores.”
Walmart does not disclose its gun sales numbers.
News of Walmart’s decision was first reported on Tuesday by Bearing Arms, an anti-gun-control news site.
Though Walmart attributes its decision to falling demand, sales of long guns, which include assault rifles, have held steady. Firearm background checks for long guns under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, considered one marker for sales, have fluctuated between five million to just over seven million in recent years.
“Sales of rifles are up,” said Arkadi Gerney, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. He said that no consistent federal statistics were available about the numbers being sold, but “what people in the industry say is that these assault rifles are an increasing portion of rifle sales.”
Still, Mr. Gerney, a gun policy expert who worked with Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, in developing guidelines on gun sales for retailers, said he believed that the company’s sales of these weapons had slowed because it had tightened background checks and taken other measures that might have dissuaded some gun buyers from patronizing its stores.
“In my experience working with Walmart in 2008, I found them to be extremely concerned about responsible gun sales,” he said. “They definitely wanted to stay in the market and serve customers who wanted to buy guns, but they were very interested and responsive to ideas about how to make those sales safer and to make it less likely that the guns that they sell were ultimately misused.”
“Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters and people who shoot sporting clays, and things like that,” Mr. McMillon told CNN in June. “So the types of rifles we sell, the types of ammunition we sell, should be curated for those things.”
Limiting the types of guns it sells is the latest in a series of steps that the company has taken to burnish its image as a corporate citizen.
Walmart surprised some critics and supporters this year by taking a public stand in support of gay rights in its home state of Arkansas. It also stopped selling products carrying the Confederate flag after the Charleston mass shooting in June, helping to build momentum for the South Carolina General Assembly’s decision to banish the battle flag from its grounds.
Some have been pushing Walmart to go further, including the New York City public advocate, who wants the city’s pension funds to consider divesting themselves of investments in companies that sell weapons.
“We need more than paltry measures to truly take on gun violence,” said the public advocate, Letitia James. “We must take real action and commit to removing all guns from store shelves, not simply those that are not in demand. That is why I am leading the push for New York City to fully divest from gun and ammunition retailers, including Walmart.”
In April, Walmart prevailed in a court battle over the matter against Trinity Church in New York City, a shareholder in the company and critic of its gun sales. A federal court ruled in July that Walmart could exclude a shareholder proposal that would call on the retailer to reconsider selling potentially dangerous products.
“Trinity Church is very pleased to hear that Walmart will no longer sell the kinds of weapons that have caused such devastation and loss in communities across our country,” the Rev. William Lupfer, rector of Trinity Church, said in a statement. The church may drop the suit, he said.
Video of Wednesday’s attack showed a man firing a handgun at a TV reporter, Alison Parker, and a cameraman, Adam Ward, during a live broadcast. Vicki Gardner, a Chamber of Commerce official whom Ms. Parker was interviewing, was injured.
Police have identified the gunman as Vester Lee Flanagan, a former reporter at the same TV station who went by Bryce Williams on the air, and said that he had died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
James E. Holmes, the gunman involved in the Colorado theater massacre, was sentenced on Wednesday to 12 life sentences in prison, one for each murder victim, and 3,318 additional years for his additional crimes, including attempted murder. Seventy people were injured in the shooting.