By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on March 3, 2018
Corporate America is taking the lead on gun control as Congress slides back into gridlock on the issue.
Several major retailers have decided to impose new restrictions on firearm sales, while numerous companies have moved to cut ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The business moves underscore the growing sense that the political winds are shifting on gun control following the latest mass shooting at a Florida high school.
“This is the biggest signal to me that on this issue, there has been a tipping point,” said Rich Masters, head of North America crisis and issues management for Qorvis. “Companies don’t do this unless they know they are gonna be on fairly safe ground.”
Calls for action on gun control have been steadily mounting ever since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month that left 17 students and faculty members dead.
The students who survived the shooting have become powerful voices in the debate, bringing their emotional pleas to cable television, the White House and Capitol Hill.
But it’s U.S. businesses — not members of Congress — that have so far answered their calls for action.
Dick’s Sporting Goods announced this week that it would stop selling assault-style rifles and stop gun sales to those under the age of 21, two gun control proposals that have been floated by members of Congress following the Florida shooting.
The 19-year-old suspect in the attack was believed to have purchased an AR-15 legally, and allegedly used the weapon to kill students at his former high school.
During an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Dick's CEO Ed Stack said he was "disturbed and saddened" by the attack.
"Based on what's happened, and looking at those kids and those parents, it moved us all unimaginably and to think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those parents had, we said, 'we need to do something,' " he added.
Other companies quickly followed suit.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, announced it would hike the minimum age for firearm purchases to 21 and remove items from its website “resembling assault-style rifles, including nonlethal airsoft guns and toys.”
L.L. Bean said Thursday it will no longer sell guns or ammunition to anyone under 21 years of age, while Kroger announced the same day that it would raise the minimum age for gun purchases and ammunition at its Fred Meyer stores to 21 years of age.
“Kroger's vision is to serve America through food inspiration and uplift,” the grocery store chain said in its statement. “In response to the tragic events in Parkland and elsewhere, we've taken a hard look at our policies and procedures for firearm sales.”
Other businesses have distanced themselves from the NRA.
Two major outdoor retailers, REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op of Canada, decided this week to stop selling products from a sporting goods company that is connected to the NRA and produces assault-style weapons.
Companies that have direct business relationships with the NRA have also come under pressure to cut ties with the group.
The student survivors from the Parkland shooting have focused much of their attention on the powerful gun group and Republican lawmakers who have received contributions from it.
Activists have threatened boycotts and flooded social media with comments criticizing companies that have deals with the NRA, ranging from discount programs to a Visa credit card that has NRA branding.
In response, several companies — including two airlines, six car rental companies, a bank and an insurance company — have ended their corporate sponsorships with the gun group.
The NRA lambasted the companies over the moves, calling it a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice.”
Public relations experts say that companies are likely basing their decisions on the poll numbers, which suggest that the support for gun control is higher than ever before.
“For the first time ever, the numbers are really clear cut,” Masters said. “In general, companies only jump into the middle of contentious political issues when the numbers have significantly shifted in a way that they view as safe for their brand.”
Corporations may also feel a moral obligation to take the issue into their own hands, Masters said, since businesses can move far more swiftly than Congress.
And companies may also sense that there could be changes on the horizon anyway, since President Trump himself has called for raising the age requirement to buy rifles and other reforms.
But diving head first into the politically charged debate could also be a risky gambit for some businesses.
Delta Air Lines, for example, faced a fierce backlash after it ended its discount program for NRA members.
Lawmakers in Georgia, where the airline has its headquarters, this week removed a $38 million tax exemption for jet fuel from tax-cut legislation.
Georgia's Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R), who is also running for governor, had threatened to kill any tax legislation that benefits Delta after the NRA flap.
Delta has tried to quell the controversy, saying it is reviewing all discounts of a “politically divisive nature” and insisting that their intent was to remain neutral in the debate.
“They’re potentially putting their brands at risk,” Masters said.