One solution to America’s gun problem


Story highlights

Andre Spicer: America's dysfunctional political system probably will ensure that not much will change on gun control after Oregon shooting

When governments fail in their duty to keep their citizens safe, companies need to step up to the plate, he says

Editor’s Note: Andre Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

You might think every week brings another mass shooting in the United States. You would be wrong. The U.S. is averaging a little over one mass shooting every day.

After the fatal shooting of nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, President Obama pointed out that such tragedies have become routine. “Our hopes and prayers are not enough,” he said. It seems the time for action is finally coming.

Irrespective of his resolve, Obama will face a deadlock. On one side are liberals who believe the government should try to impose some form of gun control. On the other side are conservatives who point out it is unconstitutional to restrict the sales of guns. Even when both sides are presented with evidence that might undermine their own opinions, they ignore that and stick to their original beliefs.

Andre Spicer
Andre Spicer

Even if there were some consensus on what needs to be done, America’s dysfunctional political system would ensure that making any changes would be as easy as swimming through molasses.

If the U.S. government is unwilling or unable to resolve this issue, then the American people need to look elsewhere. When governments fail in their duty to keep their citizens safe, companies need to step up to the plate.

This is already beginning to happen. Some investment funds have pulled money out the gun manufacturing industry. For example, Cerberus, a large investment fund, has put its holding of Freedom Group – one of the largest small arms manufacturers in the U.S. – up for sale after pressure from the California teacher retirement fund. For investors, this is probably a smart move. Recent research has also found that the share prices of arms manufacturers decline after a mass shooting.

Gun makers will continue to find investors. But pressure from the divestment movement, such as Campaign to Unload, is likely to force companies to think more carefully about their policies and practices. Similar tactics have worked in cleaning up other industries.

Some of these strategies were pioneered during the apartheid era in South Africa, when Western and European activists encouraged not just consumers but also investors to boycott companies operating in the country. More recently, the oil and gas industry has been forced to improve its environmental practices after campaigns by various activist groups. Just last week, Shell announced it would cease drilling in the Arctic – in a depressed oil market the threat to its brand image was simply not worth it. Recent studies suggest that activist campaigns hit companies where it hurts: their share price.

Just like investors can do their part by avoiding the gun industry, retailers can also turn up the heat. Some are beginning to. Over a month ago, Walmart announced that it would stop selling military-style semiautomatic rifles, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters. This is a big step, since Walmart is one of the biggest gun sellers in the country. Walmart says it was choosing to stop selling these weapons as demand was waning. But there are clearly other reasons for the decision.

Selling weapons has become a big reputation risk for an all-purpose retailer like Walmart. It worried that it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered that the next mass shooter purchased his gun from a Walmart store. If this happened, then the company could be directly linked to a tragedy. Customers might start thinking twice before heading down to the retailer to do their shopping.

Businesses with little or no connection to weapon sales have also started to jump on the bandwagon. Starbucks famously unveiled a policy of asking customers to leave their weapons behind when they visit the coffee shops. Retailers like Staples have also found themselves under pressure to declare themselves gun free.

Clearly, there will continue to be people who demand the opportunity to pick up a semiautomatic rifle while grocery shopping, or carry their weapon while sipping a spiced pumpkin latte. And there will always be niche players who profit from gun enthusiasts.

But with enough pressure from activists, families of those killed by guns, and the general public, more businesses will take action when they realize that being associated with a horrible mass shooting far outweighs the benefit of selling guns.

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