The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have been thrust into a national debate and have made it clear that thoughts and prayers are not enough – they are demanding action from politicians, schools, the NRA and even businesses. We have seen this highly-politicized and divisive issue in the news before, but this time is different. Those students can’t be ignored. Companies are increasingly more comfortable standing up for and speaking out on hot button issues that have dominated the news over the last year.

Americans are looking to business to take the lead and address issues outside their transactional footprint – and they were willing to buy and boycott based on those corporate values. Now, in the wake of the tragic Parkland school shooting, gun control is taking center stage. The culmination of student activism and the hyper-awareness of social justice issues spurred by 2017 has catalyzed a new movement, pressuring companies to cut ties with the NRA and for consumers to boycott those companies who refuse to take a stand. The call for action is impossible to ignore and brands are responding with a range of actions:

  • Discontinuing NRA Member Discounts: Brands including Delta, United, MetLife, First National Bank of Omaha, Symantec, Avis Budget Group, Hertz and Enterprise Holdings took to social media to announce they will be discontinuing their discounts for NRA members. Many cited “customer feedback” as the main cause for distancing themselves from the organization.
  • Changing Gun Purchasing Policies: Walmart (the largest seller of guns in the country), Dick’s Sporting Goods, L.L.Bean* and Kroger announced they will no longer sell guns and high-capacity magazines to anyone under the age of 21. In addition to the policy changes, Dick’s said it will no longer sell assault-style rifles in its stores. Walmart had made that decision back in 2015, but has extended the ban to items resembling assault-style rifles, including toys guns and air rifles.
  • Leveraging Purchasing Power and Dollars to Influence Others: REI announced that it would suspend future orders from Vista Outdoor, the parent company of CamelBak and Giro, as well as Savage Arms, a manufacturer of AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles. While the outdoor retailer does not sell guns, the company hopes to sway its vendors to “work towards common sense solutions” to prevent more tragedies. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset managers, stopped short of saying it would divest its funds of gun companies, but said it will speak with weapons manufacturers and distributors “to understand their response” to the Florida shooting and is putting pressure on companies such as Sturm Ruger & Company Inc. and American Outdoor Brands Corp.

But even brands responding to cries for stricter gun laws are facing backlash. In response to the #BoycottNRA movement, gun-supporters are threatening their own boycott of brands who have spoken out for stricter gun control. Delta, who requested its information be removed from the NRA website, lost tax breaks on jet fuel after ending its partnership with the NRA.

While nearly two-thirds of Americans expect companies to stand up for gun control, organizations must to be thoughtful about if and how to respond. Companies need permission to engage in an authentic way.  Their purpose, values and business practices must be aligned with what they say and what they do.  Careful consideration must be given to how important the issue is to their business, their stakeholders and the role they play in society.  Not every company can or should go head-to-head with the NRA, but there is a spectrum of ways to engage to make a difference in a way that is authentic and meaningful.

The discussion around stricter gun laws is not new, but the issue now has a new group of passionate, empowered, well-articulated students who represent the children, grandchildren and friends of every American. All eyes are on this powerful group to see if they can influence both companies and politicians alike to take a stand on the future of gun control.

By: Alison DaSilva, Executive Vice President

* Cone client