Nashville 'gun' terror carries message for America

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Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Nashville movie theater incident newest reminder of how guns take economic toll we tend to ignore
  • She says effects include work hours lost, consumers scared away. Business should step up to address.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a specialist in 20th-century European history. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last month, a gunman in a Louisiana movie theater killed two people and injured nine others before shooting himself with a gun he'd legally purchased. On Wednesday, a man with what looked like a real semi-automatic pistol in a Nashville movie theater sprayed patrons with pepper spray and hit one with a hatchet before police -- apparently believing he had a real gun -- shot him dead.

Summer is high season for movie-going, but who among us will not carry in the back of our minds -- as we settle into our seats in a darkened roomful of strangers -- that anything is possible in a society so saturated with guns. That the alleged assailant in Nashville, Vincente David Montano, was wielding a pellet gun that only, quite convincingly, looked like a real gun changes the outcome, but not the terror. Some of us may decide going out to the movies isn't worth it.
    Ruth Ben-Ghiat
    This would constitute a change in our consumer habits. And it has an economic effect. This is something that has gone largely unspoken in the debates about gun control and concealed carry that follow upon each shooting: the ever-rising economic toll of gun violence in our country and the role that American business can play in advocating for more stringent gun controls.
    Imagine, for example, that gun death was so rare in America, that the bizarre Nashville incident could be viewed as just an aberration, not a chilling reminder of our ongoing reality. Americans are killing each other with guns in staggering numbers, and yet American business has failed to seriously engage with the negative effects of gun violence on national well-being, productivity and prosperity. Ted Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, crunched the numbers for a Mother Jones report and came up with a $229 billion a year price tag for direct and indirect costs of gun violence.
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    Both small-business owners and human resources executives in large corporations know the economic ripple effect these broad figures reflect: consumers shunning businesses touched by gun violence, days lost from work while families grieve, businesses closed temporarily after shootings, good workers diminished by the physical or mental consequences of witnessing or being direct victims of gun violence.
    The strength of the gun lobby in America and the fears of some that they will lose rights conferred, they say, by the Second Amendment are only part of the reason such topics are mostly avoided in the business world, including in the business media. Our attachment to guns crosses lines of race, gender and sexual orientation: it is a national disposition. Who wants to mess with that?
    Not many businesses operating in this country. Whether American or foreign owned, they have been reluctant to risk consumer anger and incur losses by taking a stand on the issue. It is little wonder that even those American corporations that are praised as being socially responsible have, on this issue, mostly kept their heads down.
    Starbucks is an example. Even after the Newtown massacre, the coffee purveyor limited itself to asking customers "respectfully" not to bring guns in their stores, rather than making it clear that guns were unwelcome. Some other companies have done better.
    But with the bar this low, moving the culture forward on this issue will not be an easy task. More individuals are carrying concealed weapons than ever before, with or without permits.
    And many exercise their rights to open carry, never thinking they are creating alarm in their fellow citizens and creating disruptive security situations. In June, a man brought a fully loaded rifle into the Atlanta airport -- a major hub of business travel -- when he and his wife dropped off their daughter for a flight.
    We have changed our collective mind about large social issues in the past: women now have the right to vote, racial intermarriage is no longer forbidden, homosexuality is no longer considered an illness, same-sex marriage is now a right and smoking is no longer chic.
    On those topics, business has helped to set a new tone for America. But on the issue of gun control, there has so far been no tipping point. We continue to mow down our leaders (Charleston), our children (Newtown) and our work force (Louisiana, most recently), with collateral damage that harms the economy and weakens us as a nation.
    America's economic leaders should apply the boldness and tenacity that fuel national enterprise to the task of shifting the conversation about gun control in this country. They will face opposition at first, but they will be making a necessary investment in our human capital and in our collective prosperity.
    This commentary was updated to reflect the latest accounts of the Nashville shooting.