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Tina Casey headshot

How Gun Control Is Raising the Bar on Corporate Social Responsibility

By Tina Casey

Gun control used to be one of those hot political buttons that no savvy corporate manager would take on without good reason, and it looks like those reasons have finally become apparent in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shootings. Rather than simply advocating for stronger gun control laws, several leading, mainstream US retailers have taken the law into their own hands. Specifically, some established their own minimum age limit for purchasing guns in their stores, and others are also banning certain types of guns.

These measure are relatively mild but they are at least consistent with the common sense restrictions that gun control advocates have long demanded from state and federal legislators. With elected leaders failing to lead on gun control, corporate leaders are willing to step in and fill the gap.

Yes, Parkland is different

Last week Triple Pundit discussed how gun control activists were galvanized after a 19-year-old murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Under normal circumstances it would be reasonable to assume that this new burst of activism would be short-lived. Media attention fades quickly no matter how horrific the massacre, and that's why elected officials normally don't move too far away -- if at all -- from their current positions.

However, Parkland is different. Two social trends have combined to make the Parkland case unique. Foremost is the Parkland survivors themselves, who are mature, articulate, and working the levers of social media, television and other forms of modern communications with a persistence unlike anything seen before.

The other factor is the corporate social responsibility movement. In recent years the CSR movement has shed the perception that it is simply a "feel good" public relations exercise. Responsiveness to social concerns is becoming an indicator of sound management, value, and profitability. It's no accident that several of the companies responding to the Parkland massacre have made it clear that they are listening to the student activists and their communities.

Dick's acts on gun control

With Parkland, retailers are beginning to realize that the vacuum of political leadership on gun control has exposed them to a high level of risk, especially where teenage killers with high powered weapons are involved.

That's especially clear in the case of Dick's Sporting Goods. The company seems to have hit its brick-and-morter retail stride and has recently been adding stores at a time when many companies are shrinking, Dick's has much at stake if a school shooting can be traced to its stores.

In fact, the 19-year-old Parkland shooter owned a gun that he legally purchased in a Dick's store in 2017, as the company has confirmed. Though it was not the gun used in the shooting, the close shave proved to be a tipping point for Dick's.

In a public statement, Dick's CEO and Chairman Edward Stack echoes the main point that student activists and their allies have been pounding home:

...Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones.

But thoughts and prayers are not enough.

Stack also deliberately emphasizes the leading role on gun control that students have taken up, and he frames Dick's new policies as a direct response to their advocacy.

The company stopped selling assault-style rifles in its Dick's stores after the Sandy Hook murders, and now it will remove them from its Field & Stream stores.

In addition, the company will limit gun sales to 21 years and up, and stop selling high capacity magazines (for the record, Dick's has never sold "bump stocks" that modify guns to fire more rapidly).

Dick's has also called for those policies to be nationalized, along with other measures including closing the background check loophole for private sales and gun shows.

Although Dick's expected a backlash, so far the negative reaction has been negligible. Two employees reportedly quit in protest of the new policies, but the company has stated that it is "humbled" by the outpouring of support, including people who have visited Dick's stores with flowers and donuts as well as comments coming in by email, phone call and social media.

Retailers respond in force

Other retailers that responded by establishing their own gun control policies include Kroger. The company noted that it follows all state and local laws for gun sales at its Fred Meyer stores, but stated that the current laws do not go far enough. Like Dick's, the company will now limit sales to 21 and older.

Kroger also stopped selling assault-style rifles in three states several years ago and now it has added Alaska to the no-sale list.

Walmart and L.L. Bean have also joined the 21-and-over list.

On the downside, as of this writing several major retailers are not responding to the student activists. Last week Huffington Post compiled a list that included Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's (Bass recently acquired Cabela’s), as well as Academy Sports + Outdoors.

Camping World is another non-responsive retailer. The company recent acquired Gander Outdoors and it is planning to expand its brick-and-mortar footprint by opening dozens of new Gander Outdoors stores. Apparently the management at Camping World has a different take on risk exposure than Dick's.

Huffington Post also cites three lesser known companies; Hyatt Guns, Gunrunner Auctions and Big 5 Sporting Guns as among those not changing their policies.

Business pressures business on gun control

These companies may not be particularly susceptible to pressure from consumers, but they could face some serious blowback from other businesses.

One example is the major outdoor retailer REI. The company does not sell firearms but it does business with several companies that were recently acquired by Vista Outdoor, which also owns the gun maker Savage Arms.

After "active discussions" with Vista failed to prompt a response, REI announced that it was suspending business with the Vista-owned companies.

REI cited Dick's leadership in its decision, stating that "we believe that it is the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month."

The Canadian outdoor co-op MEC also announced to its 5 million members that it is suspending business with a group of Vista-owned companies, citing the need to "lean in further" on its concept of corporate social responsibility. Although the company has getting pushback from some members, apparently most of the feedback is on the side of common sense gun control. MEC states that it will work to "build consensus around the potential for constructive social impact related to purchasing."

Gun manufacturers are also beginning to feel the pressure from investors. The global investment giant Blackrock has been cultivating a CSR profile, and the Parkland case has made the company take another look at its holdings in the gun industry.

Blackrock recently put weapons makers in its stock indexes on notice that they need to start thinking about safety-based gun control measures. Apparently the warning was not enough, because late last week Blackrock announced that it would offer its clients the option of pulling their investments out of weapons manufacturers.

The firm is also considering alternative indexes that exclude gun makers altogether. According to CNBC, Blackrock may also put its voting power to use, though in general it does not dictate policy to individual companies.

Whither Fedex?

All of this activity represents a second wave of corporate response to Parkland. In the first wave, a number of high profile companies announced that they would drop their discount partnerships with the National Rifle Association.

These included airlines, rental car companies and at least one credit card company, all of which have much to lose if they fail to engage with high school students at the cusp of the 18-34 demographic group.

FedEx has been a conspicuous holdout, and now it is beginning to feel some heat from other businesses. As of this writing, two high profile companies have publicly announced that they are suspending business with FedEx, the talent agency ICM and the production company World of Wonder.

Two is only a trickle, but if the groundswell of support for the student activists continues to grow, the trickle could turn into a flood.

FedEx has lost the opportunity to lead on common sense gun control, and the company doesn't seem willing to make up for lost ground. FedEx issued no less than four statements defending its position in terms of its legal status as a common carrier, without addressing the issue of whether or not its discount policy should be adjusted.

In the fourth statement FedEx engaged in some finger-pointing at rival UPS, which does ship items from the NRA online store. However, the NRA online store does not carry guns, and UPS does not offer special NRA member discounts like FedEx.

The effort to deflect attention may end up doing FedEx more harm than good, so stay tuned for statement number five.

Photo (cropped): Mike Mozart/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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