One year ago, on February 14, 2018, yet another in a long, unrelenting series of mass shootings took place in yet another school in the U.S. This one occurred at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This tragedy was different. This time, the survivors did not wait for the adults to act. This time, they took the fight to the streets, and to the media. This time, they rallied millions of their peers, parents and supporters to advocate for gun safety.
The message was so strong and so clear that it swept more than 1,000 gun safety advocates into office in the 2018 election cycle.
So, what exactly was different? This time, the students and their allies made the business case for common sense gun safety.
The Parkland wave of activism did not happen in a vacuum. Momentum for a business case was building in the years leading up to last February.
On the business side, one standout example is Levi Strauss. The company has exercised its public voice on behalf of gun safety since 2003. Levi Strauss upped the ante in 2016 after a customer accidentally shot himself in the foot at a Lev’s store. Despite a boycott threat, the company doubled down again after Parkland.
On the grassroots side, the groundswell can be traced to 2012, when Shannon Watts founded the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.
State level Moms Demand chapters quickly formed across the U.S. and the group affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, an umbrella organization that includes the 1,000-strong coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
The Black Lives Matter movement also raised the bar on youth activism in relation to gun violence. The Parkland students were quick to connect with other youth allies across the country, including the Chicago-based Peace Warriors and BRAVE (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere).
The organization Guns Down America also laid the groundwork for a business approach to advocacy for gun safety in 2016, in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Guns Down drew media attention with a campaign against FedEx, citing the company’s enrollment in the NRA’s discount program.
FedEx rode out the storm and the campaign didn’t seem to gain much traction with the public at the time. However, Guns Down put the issue of reputational risk on the table. That element of brand identity became a point of focus for the wave of activism propelled by the Parkland students, which zeroed in on the toxic, anything goes culture of gun ownership fostered by the National Rifle Association.
The focus on a powerful lobbying organization provided U.S. businesses with a platform for solidarity with activists and highlighted brand identity with an eye on rising public sentiment in favor of action on gun safety.
Last year, Forbes contributor Elizabeth MacBride took a close look at the Guns Down campaign against FedEx and observed:
“For years, the business community, especially businesses that sold or dealt in guns, steered clear of angering vocal and politicized gun owners. (In the early 1990s, Smith and Wesson suffered a boycott when it tried to reach a compromise on gun laws.). Guns Down gave companies something to worry about on the left side of the spectrum, too -- and a certain amount of cover if they wanted to step out of line.”
After Parkland, the floodgates for business action opened, NRA or not. Dick’s Sporting Goods was one of the first to impose new controls on guns sold in its stores. CEO and Chairman Edward Stack echoed the Parkland activists’ argument with this explanation:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones.
But thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
Kroger, Walmart and L.L. Bean also announced that they would restrict gun sales in the absence of legislative action. REI, which does not sell guns, also announced that it was suspending its relationship with Vista Outdoor, the parent company of Savage Arms.
Another significant action came when the global investment firm BlackRock leveraged its CSR profile to provide its clients with an opportunity to pull their investments out of weapons manufacturers.
As for the NRA itself, the organization’s sprawling network of business-to-business relationships began to crumble shortly after Parkland. Leading household brands like Chubb, MetLife, Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, United, Delta, Symantec (maker of the Norton anti-virus software) were among those announcing that they were dropping their NRA membership or withdrawing from the NRA discount program.
Even FedEx finally gave in — intentionally or not. Last fall, the company quietly dropped its NRA discount, masking the move in an overhaul involving dozens of other underperforming business relationships.
As a result of the 2018 election cycle, gun safety candidates helped tip the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives toward the Democratic party for the first time in eight years.
Not coincidentally, for the first time in eight years the House Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing on gun safety as one of its first actions in the 2019 legislative cycle. The Committee was previously under Republican control, and it had regularly turned down requests for a hearing from the Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
The Committee acted swiftly. Earlier this week, the body passed its first new gun safety legislation in eight years, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 (HR-8) and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019 (HR -1112).
The legislation is all but certain to die in the Republican-held Senate even if it passes a vote by the full House. Nevertheless, it marks the first time in eight years that members of Congress will be forced to record their position on gun safety.
That is a major step forward for Congress. However, as the 2020 presidential cycle heats up, Guns Down founder Igor Volsky warns of trouble ahead for gun safety advocates.
In an op-ed published in the Boston Globe earlier this week, Volsky takes note of a "losing strategy” on gun safety adopted by leading Democratic candidates.
Volsky argues that Democratic candidates are taking the wind out of the sails of post-Parkland activism. They still defer to NRA by picking at pieces of the problem instead of addressing it in broad terms that the public now supports:
“If March for Our Lives taught us anything, it’s that Americans are craving leaders who can establish a clear and bold long-term goal for significantly reducing gun deaths. That goal should be building a future with fewer guns.”
It’s not just the Democrats. Last week, Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz drew heat from activists for reportedly affirming the trope that gun safety advocates want to take away all guns. Schultz, who still maintains a financial interest in Starbucks, has been mulling an independent run for the White House.
If political leadership on gun safety falls flat again, it may be up to business leaders like Levi-Strauss, Dick’s and BlackRock to fill the void.
And these business leaders will have another long-term challenge on their hands, due to the activism sparked by the tragedy in Parkland: they will be recruiting from a wave of young hires who will want their companies to take a stand on vexing social issues such as gun violence.
Image credit of vigil at Tam High School in Mill Valley, CA after the Parkman tragedy: Fabrice Florin/Flickr
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. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.