Gun Control After Parkland: What Can Firms Really Do?

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Wharton's Eric Orts, Brian Berkey and Robert Hughes discuss corporations' reactions to the Parkland shootings.

In what could be a watershed moment, gun-control advocacy in the U.S. has won support from large corporations after the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that claimed the lives of 17 students and educators. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the flag-bearer of gun rights, found itself in the sights of Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Hertz Rental Cars and MetLife, among a growing list of other businesses. Also, retailers like Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger decided to stop selling guns and ammunition to those under the age of 21; the current legal age threshold is 18 years. Others like Amazon, UPS and FedEx have resisted calls to break ties with the NRA.

All those moves have come after survivors of the Parkland shootings launched the #NeverAgain campaign to combat gun violence with stiffer legislative controls. To be sure, gun rights advocates have come down heavily on some of the corporations that have stood up in support of gun control, accusing them of unwanted activism. Delta Airlines, for example, lost $50 million in tax incentives from Georgia after it canceled discounts for NRA members.

Knowledge@Wharton discussed the implications of such advocacy for the corporations with Wharton professors of legal studies and business ethics Eric Orts, Brian Berkey and Robert Hughes on the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111.

Following are key takeaways from their discussion:

Multiple Factors Influence Corporate Responses

According to Orts, the responses by firms to events like the Parkland shootings are “quite complex” and involve multiple factors. First, a firm’s reaction is driven by a sense of business responsibility, he noted. Any CEO would want to distance their company from killings like those at the Parkland school because of the “huge reputational hit” it would take, he said. Orts is also director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, and co-editor of the book The Moral Responsibility of Firms.

“You’re going to have a movement … similar to what we’ve seen on fossil fuels on university campuses [concerning] investor responsibility.”–Eric Orts

A second factor is consumer activism, Orts said. “Lots of consumers are getting active” in response to calls from Parkland students for boycotts of businesses that support gun rights or that do business with the NRA, he noted. Companies need to consider what level of exposure they could have to such activism and respond accordingly, he said.

A third factor comes from investors who want to reduce the potential risk of investing in companies that get caught on the wrong side of the gun rights debate, Orts said. He noted that money management firm BlackRock has stated it would both offer its clients financial products that exclude firearms manufacturers and “engage with firearms manufacturers [on their] business policies and practices.”

Orts predicted that such activism will gain momentum over time. “You’re going to have a movement, I would expect, similar to what we’ve seen on fossil fuels on university campuses [concerning] investor responsibility,” Orts said. He also foresaw retailers cutting ties with suppliers who refuse to pledge their support to combating gun violence.

The Costs of Taking a Stand

Delta Airlines and United Airlines tweeted on February 24 that they will end discounts to NRA members traveling to the association’s annual convention. Delta Airlines drew swift retaliatory action from Georgia, where Republicans forced the removal of $50 million in jet-fuel tax breaks to the airline in a broader bill they passed on March 1.

Despite the possibility of such political blowback, “you have to make a moral decision in these cases,” Orts noted. “This is not something where you can say that … you’ll just let the political system figure it out.” He noted that “50% of millennials thinks CEOs need to take positions on moral responsibility,” and those positions will dictate their purchasing decisions.

Legal Limits of Activism

Notwithstanding their eagerness to chip in, businesses will face constraints on the extent to which they could support gun control, Orts said. Delta Air Lines, for example, has said its action against the NRA is based on a “neutral” stance, and that it continues to support the Second Amendment that allows Americans to bear arms.

“Businesses have to decide what products they’re going to sell; they’re not legally or morally required to sell everything.”–Robert Hughes

Other firms that have adjusted the age limit to purchase firearms might also run afoul of state laws that permit younger people to buy them, setting the stage for potential legal battles, the experts said.

Some companies like UPS and FedEx that have business relationships with the NRA may find it legally difficult to refuse to carry parcels, Orts noted. Also, a company like Amazon would find itself violating free-speech rights if it refused to air the NRA’s TV channel, as activists have demanded, he pointed out. “If you start to make political determinations about what show you’re going to carry or not, then that could expose you to not only legal issues but also what’s morally fair,” he said.

A Different Breadth of Response

For the first time, “members of the public more broadly have played the foundational role in moving businesses to adopt new policies,” said Berkey. He also saw the role of students in responding to the Parkland shootings as making a “big difference,” compared to earlier gun-violence tragedies. Added Hughes: “Businesses have to decide what products they’re going to sell; they’re not legally or morally required to sell everything.”

In the wake of the Parkland massacre, Berkey also expected gun control advocates to become more organized and active than they have historically been. “[If] you look at the polls on gun control policies, you have significant majorities [that] are in favor of a number of these policies,” he said. “But they don’t get enacted because the NRA and its members and its advocates are extremely active, whereas the people on the other side have historically been less active. That could be changing.” He noted that incidents like those at Parkland and elsewhere “are motivating people, especially young people, to be more involved — and that may lead to a change in the power dynamics.”

According to Orts, Parkland could truly be a turning point. “Historically, the really big question for me is: Is this going to be the start of a social movement in part led by young people?” He recalled “big social movements” that changed policy and law in the U.S., such as those that followed the May 1970 shootings at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, during Vietnam War that killed four students and injured nine. “It’s possible that this will have legs, and it will depend in part on how determined the students are going to be to move this forward.”

“The idea that it’s too dangerous to allow an 18-year-old to buy a beer but not too dangerous to allow them to buy an AR-15 is not defensible in any way.”–Brian Berkey

The Gathering Shape of the Law

If the #NeverAgain movement gains momentum, as it appears to, it would bring fresh debate on issues like “freedom of enterprise” — under which a retailer, for example, cannot be forced to sell what it doesn’t want to, said Orts. Hughes pointed out that though Federal law sets minimum age limits to buy certain weapons, nothing in Federal law prohibits a store from setting its own, higher purchasing age. Added Berkey: “The idea that it’s too dangerous to allow an 18-year-old to buy a beer but not too dangerous to allow them to buy an AR-15 is not defensible in any way.”

For additional coverage, see: Will Parkland Flip the Switch on Gun Control?

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