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When Companies Support Gun Control, but Politicians Do Not

Mass shootings and school shootings have become horrifically commonplace in 2018. Yet the February 14th Parkland, Florida school shooting – which left 17 dead – was different. Re-igniting the seemingly endless gun debate, the Parkland survivors effectively harnessed the power of social media, quickly criticizing the insufficient “thoughts and prayers” of many politicians – particularly those opposed to gun control legislation. The students have pulled other actors into the conversation around gun control during this crucial time. While the passage of meaningful gun control in Congress seems unlikely, businesses have been quick to respond to public outrage, causing clashes between conservative state legislatures and large companies taking a more liberal public stance. Choosing between the pro-business platform of the Republican party and social conservatism, Republicans legislators who stand by social conservatism risk losing an economically minded electorate.

Following the Parkland shooting, large gun retailers have filled the political void in gun control through self-imposed restrictions on firearm sales. Dick’s Sporting Goods will no longer sell assault style weapons or guns to people under 21, with the CEO of the company, Edward Stack, declaring “thoughts and prayers are not enough” in response to the Parkland school shooting. On the same day, Walmart raised the minimum age for purchasing a gun to 21. As the country’s largest gun retailer, this move on February 28th had an enormous impact. Walmart’s statement was particularly interesting because it directly tied the new gun restrictions to the Parkland shooting, while previously the retailer attributed any restrictions or removal of guns from its shelves to waning demand or customer preference. Kroger – America’s largest supermarket – and L.L. Bean both followed Walmart’s lead soon after, raising their respective minimum age requirements for gun purchases on March 1st, just one day later.

Parkland’s aftermath illustrates how social media is forcing change in the way companies react to consumer outrage. Student survivors of the shooting have mobilized large followings on social media, especially on Twitter. Responding to politicians’ tweets of “thoughts and prayers” after the shooting with calls for gun control and boycotts on companies that support the NRA, these student activists have forced politicians and companies to engage in the gun control debate. Several companies that changed their firearm rules announced these changes by responding directly to tweets critiquing their gun policies. The social media campaign #NeverAgain and its predecessors removed the buffer between the private sector and politics: now, companies are finding themselves under some of the social pressure to take a stance on divisive issues formerly reserved for members of Congress.  

The private sector reaction to the Parkland shooting has not been limited to gun retailers. Other companies have rapidly severed their ties to the NRA in the face of public outrage in the hours and days after the shooting. Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise Rent-a-Car, National and Alamo Rent A Car, announced on February 22 that it is ending its relationship with the NRA by removing a discount for NRA members. Almost immediately, Hertz and Avis rental car companies followed suit, clearly uncomfortable being the last ones remaining under the NRA umbrella. The NRA currently has no remaining relationships with rental car companies.

Delta also revoked their discounts for NRA members on February 24th, officially stating that they intend to stay neutral in the gun control debate. That is not how the NRA, nor the NRA-supporting Georgia legislature, interpreted the action. The Republican controlled Georgia legislature retaliated by eliminating a highly-coveted $50 million jet fuel tax break from a tax reform package passed earlier this month. This tax break which would disproportionately impact Delta, as it is the largest airline based in the state. The move epitomized the tension between economic and cultural conservatism that has been playing out in the Republican Party nationally. The conservative voter base loved it; Republican Governor Nathan Deal criticized the bill but signed it into law anyway. With a gubernatorial race upcoming in November, Republicans trying to curry favor with a strong conservative base might have seen an aggressively pro-NRA message as a path to victory. Such is likely the case for Casey Cagle, Georgia’s lieutenant governor and 2018 gubernatorial candidate, who strongly supported the retaliation against Delta. Cagle tweetedCorporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

Quickly following Georgia’s retribution against Delta, politicians from states with stricter gun control laws declared their states more hospitable towards Delta’s business. While it seems unlikely that Delta would relocate their hub from Atlanta, Georgia lawmakers should not interpret this as a total victory: attacking Delta may lead to economic repercussions that alienate more-moderate, business-oriented Republicans in the state. In recent years, states that have chosen cultural conservatism over business have felt the backlash for years after. North Carolina will be facing the fallout from the infamous “bathroom bill” for years to come. When North Carolina effectively ended legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people through HB2 in March 2016, businesses fled the state. The NBA cancelled the All-Star game in North Carolina, costing the state $106 million. The NCAA moved games out of the state, eliminating state revenue from the customary March Madness games hosted by Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. The NCAA’s reaction to the bill was so effective that when it set a deadline for a repeal of the bill or the state forfeiting the opportunity to host NCAA games until 2022, North Carolina repealed most of the bill before the deadline. PayPal decided against building a facility in North Carolina – projected to have added $109.2 million to the state’s economy. Musicians canceled concerts. Technology companies such as Google Ventures declared they would not fund further research and development until the bill was repealed. Forbes estimated the total cost of the law at $630 million in just a year. Over the course of a decade, North Carolina’s economy will miss out on $3.7 billion in lost business and investments.

HB2 began as a showdown between conservative, rural areas and liberal, urban areas like Charlotte. Even though rural conservatives won the first political fight, passing HB2 in response to Charlotte’s liberal anti-discrimination laws, the whole state suffered economically as a result. Many businesses that fled the state due to the bill did not come back when it was repealed. Georgia lawmakers should be very aware of this lesson, particularly considering Atlanta absorbed many of the businesses that avoided North Carolina due to the discriminatory law. The same could happen to Georgia as state politicians forfeit Atlanta’s business opportunities to appease a socially conservative rural base. As North Carolina illustrated, support from social conservatives can be undermined by economic losses.

Tangible danger exists for politicians who choose to stand with social conservatives at the expense of a pro-business attitude: Roy Cooper, a Democrat who ran on the campaign promise of repealing HB2, defeated incumbent Republican Pat McCrory. The state was not making a wider swing left, either: Trump won the state by several percentage points on the same day. Georgia politicians up for election in 2018 may gamble that standing with a conservative base supportive of the NRA may ensure primary and general election victories. But with 68% of Americans supporting a ban on assault rifles, according to a Pew Research Center study, it is risky for politicians publicly defend the NRA. Economic consequences for politicians’ staunch support for the NRA may be the final straw for a public exhausted by the heartbreak of school shootings.

This time, the debate on gun control seems different. Even Florida, whose governor Rick Scott has an A rating from the NRA, just passed a gun control package. Following the lead of Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, the law raises the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21 and bans bump stocks. It also imposes a three-day waiting period on gun purchases, a long sought regulation by gun control groups. Georgia Republicans and other lawmakers who choose to stand behind the NRA instead of the Parkland student survivors risk missing these changing headwinds in the gun control debate.

There are dangerous implications for the Republican party if Republicans politicians abandon their traditional business-friendly image to spar with liberal companies. While appealing to social conservatives by supporting the NRA or anti-LGBTQ legislation may win primaries like the Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary, in the long run Republicans risk alienating a more moderate and economically minded electorate. Choosing to stand with the NRA instead of Delta indicates the Republican party, at least in some states, is willing to go further and further to the right. This may prove politically perilous with younger generations willing to fight for, and vote for, socially liberal causes. Republicans in Georgia have chosen to stand with an older, more conservative base. But they need younger, moderate votes to stay in power in the long term.



About the Author

Cartie Werthman '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Cartie can be reached at