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Tina Casey headshot

A Reckoning for the Gun Safety Movement in the Age of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19

Gun safety may have faded from the headlines, but the Black Lives Matter protests sparked a reawakening as this is also an issue of state-sanctioned violence.
By Tina Casey
Gun Safety

Two years ago, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida touched off a powerful wave of protests in support of gun safety. That movement has faded from the headlines, but the Black Lives Matter protests have forced a reawakening. Gun violence is more than a matter of civil violence. It is an issue of state-sanctioned violence as well. Recognizing that fact will enable business leaders to respond more effectively as the issue of gun safety continues to resonate in the coming years.

Black Lives Matter and the broader issue of police violence

The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests were not sparked by a police shooting. However, the death of George Floyd in Minnesota has forced attention on other incidents in which an unarmed Black person was shot to death by a uniformed police officer or by a self-proclaimed vigilante, as in the recent cases of Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, Maurice Gordon in New Jersey, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

The protests have also finally forced attention on the broader issue of police violence. The Washington Post is among the publications noting that police officers have shot almost 1,000 people to death in the U.S. every year since 2015, a rate of killing that is far and away higher than in other wealthy nations.

That broadening of awareness may help explain why the Black Lives Matter movement is currently receiving widespread majority support in public surveys across race and ethnic groups.

It may also explain why so many white people have joined the protests, why the protests have spread to smaller cities and rural areas where Black residents are barely  present, and why leading LGBTQ organizations have highlighted Black Lives Matter during Pride Month.

A reckoning for the gun safety movement

The issue of police violence has not been front and center for well-known gun safety advocates like Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives. In addition, although there has been some interracial outreach with Black Lives Matter organizers, the media has tended to focus on white voices (especially those with deep pockets) and continue to ignore Black voices.

That disconnect is the focus of a June 16 opinion piece for NBC News written by Amber Goodwin, executive director of Community Justice Action, and Chico Tillmon, senior advisor of the Community Justice Action Fund. They are two Black organizers who are experienced in anti-violence and gun violence prevention work.

Police violence — in instances when officers use their guns to intimidate, shoot or kill Black or brown people — is also gun violence,” they write, “And it rightly has a place in the movement against gun violence that is often celebrated by liberal politicians at the highest levels.”

They also connect the dots directly between police shootings and lax regulations that enable gun culture. "Study after study has shown that weak gun laws and higher levels of gun ownership are correlated with increased shootings by police,” they explain.

Gun violence and Black Lives Matter: Money talks

In essence, Goodwin and Tillmon argue that business leaders who support gun safety laws must also include police reform on their agendas. That also means providing concrete, financial support for Black organizations, an area in which they describe a long history of neglect.

“When Black-led organizations connected the dots between civilian and police gun violence, many of our ‘progressive allies’ historically stayed quiet,” they write, “…and we're tired of politicians and advocacy organizations treating the issue of police gun violence as a third rail in the gun violence movement.”

Concrete action on gun safety in the age of COVID-19

That call-to-action may finally be met. The Black Lives Matter protests have already galvanized a surge in corporate and foundation giving while also calling renewed attention to police violence.

The question remains whether or not the corporate dollars will truly listen to the message of Black Lives Matter and focus on solutions that embrace the reduction of state-sanctioned violence as a central theme.

That outcome seems more likely in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gun sales spiked in March as parts of the nation went into lockdown, and now months of isolation and economic pressure have brought the entire range of gun violence issues to the fore, including domestic violence.

Suicide by gun is also a rising concern. As described in a recent article in Scientific American, in 2017 suicide accounted for more than 61 percent of gun deaths, and new gun owners are at a “substantially heightened” risk of suicide.

Taking more direct action on gun violence

Aside from providing more direct financial support for Black-led gun violence organizations, and supporting gun safety legislation that includes police reform, corporate leaders can also vote with their feet by refusing to promote or enable gun culture in their places of business.

As recently as last year, that kind of direct action would create a furious backlash from the gun lobby and its organized members. Now, however, in the age of mandatory masks and a heightened awareness of public health risks, business owners who take steps to limit guns on their properties have a much stronger cushion of support.

Business leaders also do not have to fear the full wrath of the National Rifle Association (NRA) any longer. That organization is currently in financial distress, though a somewhat notorious family-led gun rights organization called Iowa Gun Owners (IGO) appears to have taken its place. In an interesting twist on the connection between COVID-19 and gun violence, IGO has also been instrumental in organizing protests against COVID-19 lockdowns across the country.

As for the bottom-line benefits of direct action, Dick’s Sporting Goods provides a standout example.

Last year the company garnered substantial media attention for removing and destroying guns from 125 of its stores. The move enabled Dick’s to stock more higher-margin products on the shelves. The result was a healthy financial profile at a time when other big-box retailers had their own struggles.

Early in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to hit with full force, Dick’s announced that it was removing guns from 440 more stores, leaving them available only at roughly 100 locations where hunting for food is commonplace.

Whether it was a coincidence of timing or not, Dick’s action on gun culture during the COVID-19 crisis speaks volumes. Now it’s up to the rest of the business community to follow suit.

Image credit: munshots/Unsplash

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey