Alex Brandon / AP
Tuesday, March 27, 2018 | 2 a.m.
When Congress and state legislatures have gotten out of step with the American public in recent years on social issues, corporations have often stepped into the void of leadership to do the right thing.
On same-sex marriage, for example, groups of businesses and professional organizations banded together in support of advocates and helped effect change, an effort that started in a small way but grew as public opinion changed on the issue. In 2011, for example, about 70 businesses and professional organizations stepped up to ask a U.S. appeals court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act in 2011. Four years later, a group of 379 businesses that included dozens of the nation’s largest companies signed onto a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its landmark ruling essentially legalizing same-sex marriage.
Similar corporate initiatives occurred on such issues as transgender rights and the public display of the Confederate flag and statues.
Now, several companies have stepped forward to address the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. They include Dick’s Sporting Goods, which discontinued sales of assault rifles in its stores; Walmart, which began limiting gun sales to buyers 21 or older; and Citigroup, the fourth-largest U.S. bank by assets, which established requirements for its retail clients to prohibit gun sales to people under 21 and to buyers who have not passed a background check.
This is an encouraging step. Great things happen when the kind of corporate responsibility that was shown on gay marriage and now on guns is combined with political bravery, as is being displayed by the young Parkland, Fla., advocates and legislators willing to challenge the NRA. Those who’d taken the lead on the issue could forge success where lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and far too many state capitals have failed — in establishing sensible gun-control measures.
Contrary to the rhetoric coming from the NRA and conservative Republicans, the announcements coming from the corporate world aren’t a call to seize guns owned by responsible, law-abiding Americans.
Instead, the thrust is to reduce the availability of weapons and accessories capable of causing mass fatalities and keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.
Although it’s too early to tell whether the movement among businesses and gun-safety advocates will finally break the NRA’s iron grip on U.S. gun policy, there are positive signs.
For starters, it would seem to reflect Americans’ views on the subject. Witness these polls from late February:
• In a Politico/Morning Consult poll from late February, 68 percent of registered voters said gun restrictions should be tightened, compared with 25 percent who opposed stricter measures.
• Sixty-five percent of respondents in a CBS News poll said regulations on gun sales should be stricter. It was the highest number CBS News had ever recorded in favor of stricter gun laws.
• A CNN poll resulted in 69 percent of respondents saying they supported stricter regulations, the highest number in 25 years.
With public sentiment being what it is, companies face relatively little risk of backlash in taking a stand. And assuming polling stays strong and that the corporations that have taken a lead on the gun issue don’t face severe repercussions, other businesses are likely to join them. That’s what happened on same-sex marriage, and there’s no reason it couldn’t happen on guns.
Meanwhile, the gun industry is in rough shape.
The parent company of Smith & Wesson announced recently that its sales were down 33 percent in the third quarter of 2017 compared to the same quarter a year earlier, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. said its sales were off 27 percent in the fourth quarter compared to 2016. Another major manufacturer, Remington, filed for bankruptcy this week.
In addition, the number of background checks conducted by the FBI, a key indicator of gun sales, fell off 11 percent in 2017 from 2016.
Some analysts say that drop-off may be temporary — brought on by the “Trump slump,” in which gun owners who had been stocking up on weapons in fear of gun-control measures being adopted by the Obama administration stopped their buying spree when Trump was elected.
But in continuing to flood the market with guns designed to kill and maim mass numbers of humans even as concerns among Americans grew about the destructive power of those weapons, the gun industry did itself no favors. A stronger business strategy may have been to stay within the confines of sporting guns for the public and leave mass-slaughter weapons to its military contracts.
As it is, while previous mass shootings have prompted a spike in gun sales, the tragedy in Parkland did not. Instead, it sent the gun control debate into a different gear and prompted corporations to essentially say enough is enough.
For a nation that long ago became sickened over inaction in the face of an endless sequence of mass shootings, that’s reason for optimism.