Whether the spark of activism lit by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School turns into a bonfire of legislative change on guns remains to be seen. But there’s no denying that the students have gotten everyone’s attention.
In short order over the weekend, several major companies – from airlines to car rental companies and banks – announced they were dropping the NRA as a corporate partner. This never would’ve would not have happened were it not for the Parkland students, who also can claim justifiable credit for last week’s well-received CNN town hall and the attention devoted to guns at the National Governors Association meeting with President Trump this week.
One thing the students have not been able to effect – at least so far – is significant policy change at the federal or state levels on guns. The scene of the Florida state House blocking a bill to ban assault weapons as Parkland students sat powerless in the gallery was stark reminder that breaking the NRA’s stranglehold on elected officials is an uphill battle.
And while the companies’ decisions to sever ties is an important step towards further isolating the NRA and its extreme stances, it alone will not change much. After all, most NRA members don’t join the group for the discounts on mid-sized sedans. No member of Congress is going to vote for an assault weapons ban – or even a ban on bump stocks – because United Airlines shunned the NRA. Even without its corporate partners, the NRA remains as potent in fundraising and securing votes as before.
But imagine the sea change that could happen if Corporate America took a more activist stance on the country’s gun culture – if they used their considerable clout to advance reasonable steps to reduce the carnage.
And they have good reasons – business reasons – to do so.
Consider tourism. Nearly 80 million foreigners visit the U.S. each year, pumping more than $200 billion to the country’s economy. But fewer tourists are visiting the U.S. than in the past, even as global tourism is on the rise. According to the Commerce Department, foreign travelers spent 3.3 percent less in the States through the first 11 months of 2017 as compared to the previous year. According to U.S. Travel, a business lobbying group, this drop equates to a $4.6 billion drop in spending in the U.S. and a loss of 40,000 jobs.
There are a number of reasons for the drop, including a strong dollar and less-than-welcoming rhetoric from the White House. But gun violence also is having an impact. In recent years, several countries have issued travel warnings to their citizens about visiting the United States due to the prevalence of guns.
France, for example, warns citizens Americans can carry firearms legally in many parts of the country, while Germany has told its people: “It is relatively easy to obtain a firearm in the U.S. If you find yourself the victim of a gun attack, do not try to resist!” Ireland, Canada and New Zealand have also gotten into the act, with New Zealand’s government telling its citizens that “active-shooter incidents occur from time to time in the United States.”
If America’s image continues to morph from Mickey Mouse to Dirty Harry, international travelers will choose other destinations for their vacations. That means less fliers on U.S. airlines, and fewer guests for hotels, amusement parks, car rental companies, tour groups and others. Corporate America is not shy about lobbying Congress and the White House for laws that make them money (see the recent tax bill, for example). Perhaps they should demand Washington make sure America remains a safe place to visit.
At the state level, the business community can play a big role in pushing for saner gun policies. State governments and municipalities constantly try to one-up each other to lure companies to their business-friendly shores. In turn companies look for the kinds of places that will attract the kind of employees they want.
For example, you may have heard of this small company called Amazon, which is choosing between 20 cities for its second headquarters. What if Amazon made gun laws a criterion for its search? Some of the finalists, like Los Angeles, Newark and Boston, are in states that the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rates as having the strongest gun laws, while others (like Austin and Dallas) are closer to the bottom. Of course, the finalist with the strongest state laws is not even in a “state”: Toronto. Imagine the message Amazon would send by moving to Canada, eh?
Winning the Amazon competition will bring major economic benefits to the victor, as does nearly every corporate relocation and expansion. If more companies used gun safety as a criterion for where to set up shop, state legislatures would be forced to choose between jobs and guns.
This tactic is not without precedent. Remember Indiana’s anti-LGBTQ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence and quickly amended after the business community revolted? Or Georgia, where pressure from business spurred Gov. Nathan Deal to veto a similar bill? Whether the business community opposed these bills out of genuine concern for the LGBTQ community or out of fear of losing revenue is beside the point: the pressure worked.
Which brings us to another way in which Corporate America – and in fact, all major institutions – can push for sensible gun laws: Just don’t go there.
After North Carolina passed its “bathroom bill,” everyone from the NCAA to Bruce Springsteen canceled events in the Tar Heel state, costing it by some accounts nearly half a billion dollars. Ultimately the state amended the bill. Companies holding corporate retreats, associations holding conventions, major sporting events, T.V. shows and movies filming on location: there are plenty of groups that can sway a state’s policy debates simply through staying away.
There are other ways that the business community can use the power of the purse to effect change: in this post-Citizens United world, where corporations are people, too, imagine if the business community stopped giving PAC donations to candidates who vote with the NRA.
Unlikely? Perhaps. But ultimately, money does talk.
If Corporate America speaks out on the enormous toll that our country’s woefully inadequate gun laws are taking, policymakers will listen, no matter what the NRA says. The question is, are they willing to open their mouths – and their pocketbooks?
Photo: Laurie Shaull