Dick's decision to ban assault-style weapons raises this 'critical' question

  • Dick's Sporting Goods will no longer sell assault rifles and high-capacity magazines in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, FLA.
  • It's not the only company to take action, but it is one of the few whose bottom line could be affected by the move.
  • It shows how much the public is coming to expect that companies stand for more than just profits and loss.
A man holds a Bushmaster AR-15 Model A2 semi-automatic assault rifle.
George Frey | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A man holds a Bushmaster AR-15 Model A2 semi-automatic assault rifle.

Dick's Sporting Goods, which will no longer sell assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, is not the only company to take action in the wake of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It is, however, one of the few companies whose actions could directly affect its bottom line.

The reasoning is compelling and evocative. A statement issued and signed by Dick's Chairman and CEO Edward Stack revealed that the company had lawfully sold a shotgun to the 19-year old Parkland gunman in November 2017. "It was not the gun, nor the type of gun, he used in the shooting," Stack said. "But it could have been."

Those five words —"but it could have been"— show Stack's humanity and his depth of thought in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy in which 19 died. Stack's words pull the curtain back on his personal reckoning with the reality of how easily this "could have been" a gun purchased at one of his stores.

Dick's also announced it would only sell guns to buyers over age 21, prompting Walmart, which halted its sales of assault-style weapons in 2015, to follow suit.

Dick's stopped selling assault-style rifles at its Dick's branded stores after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But it later continued those sales through its 35 Field & Stream-branded stores. Now, the company is permanently removing all assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines from its shelves. "We needed to take a stand and do this," Stack said in an CNN interview.

"This purpose-driven action is becoming more common in business leadership. It's a welcomed change."

Following the Parkland rampage and vast public outcry, many major companies have publicly ended their relationships with the National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposes a ban on assault-style weapons. Among the growing list of companies is Delta Airlines, which faces a threat of the loss of tax breaks from the State of Georgia in response to the airline ending a marketing relationship with the NRA.

For many companies, the decision to end discounts offered to NRA members will likely not significantly hurt their bottom lines. That may not be the case for Dick's Sporting Goods, however, which is willingly decreasing its product line and qualified buyer pool, and therefore its sales. As the New York Times observed, Stack is "deliberately steering his company directly into the storm."

This purpose-driven action is becoming more common in business leadership. It's a welcomed change: leaders willing to put their values forward, look at the long-term consequences of their practices and the interplay between business and community, and take responsible steps – even if it proves to be counter to their own best interest or introduces risk in the short-term.

Values-imbued leadership is being called out positively by the investment community. BlackRock Inc. CEO Larry Fink, for example, said recently that "to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society."

When companies like Dick's and Walmart make powerful statements through their actions, the commitment to longevity and community surpasses the short-term focus on quarterly earnings. Such actions reveal confidence in brands and corporate purpose, while affirming a newer view of corporations as standing for more than just a product line and sales.

What remains to be seen now is how the national conversation and progress on gun violence continue to evolve. Corporations and purpose-driven business leadership are only one force. Now, they are combining with student activism, outraged parents, and legislative leadership.

The latest polls show public opinion in the United States is swinging increasingly toward stricter gun laws. Even gun owners like Dick's CEO Stark who believe themselves to be defenders of the Second Amendment are making clear their beliefs that not all guns should be protected and not all individuals should own guns. Walmart, walking this same line, stated: "Our heritage as a company has always been in serving sportsmen and hunters, and we will continue to do so in a responsible way."

The fine line walked by these retailers puts into stark relief all the issues around gun sales - what should be banned and what shouldn't be banned – and what must be discussed and hashed out in both the business and legislative arenas. What's critical to answer is the question of whether we, as a country, leave the governance of gun purchases to purpose-driven retailers or elevate it to policy and regulation.

Commentary by Megan Kashner, professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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