Big-box retailers can hardly afford to take risks these days. Thousands of U.S. retail stores have shuttered over the past few years, and experts say an economic slowdown is looming in the months ahead. Nevertheless, last week Dick’s Sporting Goods burst into the media spotlight by announcing that it had destroyed $5 million in gun inventory that went unsold after the company restricted firearm sales.
That was a risky move. The gun safety movement is gathering steam, but the National Rifle Association is still a powerful antagonist. The NRA tweeted out the news to its more than 791,000 followers, most likely with the expectation that Dick’s would become the target of a consumer boycott.
Instead of suffering a boycott, though, it appears that Dick’s may have set itself up for a fresh wave of new customers. That is partly because Dick’s has been advocating for gun safety for several years now, so it has probably weathered the worst that any boycotters could do.
In addition, Dick’s has gained a considerable amount of free publicity as a leader on gun safety by deciding not to sell certain types of guns and limiting sales to customers age 21 and up. That has attracted fans—and shoppers— among the gun safety movement
On the other hand, destroying guns is an entirely different approach than removing them from store shelves. It represents a leap into new, uncharted territory. The stage was set last year, when Dick’s raised an important question about retailers that decide not to sell guns: What are they doing with their unsold inventory?
That’s a key question, because gun-rights laws in many states are still weighted in favor of gun ownership. Even the gun itself has rights: More than a few states have regulations on the books that require law enforcement agencies to sell guns seized from criminals, rather than destroying them.
In that context, Dick’s crossed a new line—and threw down a new challenge to the gun lobby.
The interesting thing about the new announcement is that Dick’s didn’t necessarily have to draw attention to the destruction of its inventory at this time. After all, the pledge was made months ago, and the media has moved on.
However, it appears Dick’s felt it was important to demonstrate that the pledge was made in earnest. On October 6, Edward Stack, the company’s CEO, sat for an an interview with CBS News and announced that the company had indeed destroyed its inventory as promised.
Dick’s has destroyed $5 million in gun inventory since last year, Stack said. Further, he estimates that the company gave up a quarter of a billion dollars in sales since 2017, when it stopped selling guns to customers under 21. The numbers were impressive enough to catch everyone’s attention, and the story has been rippling through the media world all week.
Dick’s announcement increases the pressure on retailers and other businesses to upend the status quo on gun rights and normalize gun safety instead. A new wave of gun safety activism has been aimed at the National Rifle Association. Lately the organization has been weakened by internal strife of its own making, but it is still actively lobbying against gun safety legislation.
Another aspect of gun safety activism involves a business owner’s responsibility to create a safe environment for employees and customers. That responsibility has come into conflict with state laws that permit open or concealed carrying of firearms. Levi-Strauss was among the first leading brands to “respectfully request” that customers keep their guns away from its stores.
Momentum for this approach reinvigorated last summer. Following another mass shooting at one of its stores, Walmart asked customers to please leave their guns at home, with retailers including Kroger, Walgreens, CVS and Wegmans soon following suit. The common thread is a Levi’s-style plea for voluntary cooperation, but there has been a new twist: Some retailers are publicly stating that they will work with grassroots activists to lobby for gun safety laws.
The end result has been to restore the shopping experience to some semblance of normalcy. For an increasing number of people, the sight of a stranger carrying a gun in a retail store for no discernible reason sets off alarm bells, not nods of approval.
The next challenge for gun safety activists is to de-normalize carrying guns in public, and that is exactly what Dick’s has done with its new announcement. During the CBS interview, Stack discussed the thinking behind the decision to destroy the company’s gun inventory. “You know what?” he said. “If we really think these things should be off the street, we need to destroy them.”
It is unlikely that other retailers will follow Dick’s latest move any time soon, at least not in large numbers. However, the company has blazed a new trail for others to follow, whenever the next mass shooting takes place.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart
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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