Walmart’s recent bold moves on gun control, a year after Dick’s Sporting Goods made a similar splash, have triggered a tidal wave of CEO voices. Yesterday’s announcement by 145 business leaders that “[d]oing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable” was a historic call to action. As Michael Bloomberg commented, “Business leaders are not afraid to get engaged now.” He added, “CEOs are wired to take action on things that are going to impact their business, and gun violence is impacting everybody’s business now.”
One month after 22 customers were murdered in an El Paso Walmart, Walmart’s humble, soft-spoken, but courageous CEO, Doug McMillon, announced a gun control policy to remove all assault weapons from its stores and agreed to stop selling all guns, except hunting rifles and the ammunition to support such activity. As Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said, “If you need an assault weapon to kill a deer, you should take up fishing instead.”
McMillon went a step further than removing such dangerous weapons from Walmart’s retail inventory; he also implored Congress to act, stating: “We believe we have been doing our part to make the country safer. But Congress and the Administration need to do their part as well.”
This move has prompted some to call McMillon a corporate hero. He demonstrates that doing good is not antithetical to doing well. These bold moves are two weeks after a huge earnings beat. Walmart’s full range of business triumphs range from seamless retailing across electronic platforms and stores, with e-commerce sales surging 37%, next-day online delivery in 75% of the nation, same-day delivery through 1,100 stores, same-store sales up almost 3%, 20 straight quarters of U.S. sales gains, 19 quarters of commerce growth, 20 consecutive quarters of sales gains in the U.S., and its 19th quarter of traffic growth.
This move from Walmart follows the bold leadership of Ed Stack, CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, when he removed assault weapons from the company’s stores following the Parkland school massacre. After initially taking a hit to revenues, the sporting goods stores soared more than 20% after that move. Stack was not worried about a backlash and had the backbone to transcend it. Moved to tears following the murder of 17 innocent teachers and students in that Florida mass shooting, Stack not only removed the weapons but also launched a campaign in Congress with other CEOs. “What I promised the families in Parkland when I left is that we would keep this conversation going. And that’s what I’ve done,” he said.
The CEO of American icon Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, spearheaded this latest mass CEO statement. It included a wide range of firms, such as Airbnb, Gap, Pinterest, Lyft, the Brookfield Property Group, Royal Caribbean, Twitter, and Uber. Bergh commented, “To a certain extent, these CEOs are putting their businesses on the line here, given how politically charged this is.”
Walmart’s McMillon said that the company would stop customers carrying guns into their stores, while scores of firms, from Chipotle to Chili’s, Starbucks to Panera, and Walgreens to Wegmans, had spoken out against guns in their establishments even where it’s legal. Business is firing back and finding its voice.
It is wrong to presume that the NRA and the big business lobby always opposed business regulation and gun control. Earlier generations of business leaders promoted regulation in finance, interstate commerce, travel, telecommunications, and food safety. In fact, business leaders, along with the NRA, supported historic gun regulation, such as the 1934 National Firearms Act outlawing the assault weapons of the day: the submachine guns—Tommy guns—favored by gangsters. They also endorsed the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, banning military-style semi-automatic assault weapons, but that act expired a decade later.
CEOs know how to read the American population they serve better than do political leaders. Last year, a national gun owner survey sponsored by Americans for Responsible Solutions suggested 67% of gun owners believe the NRA has lost its historic mission promoting gun safety to one of lobbying for gun makers’ interests. According to a Quinnipiac poll released last week, 67% of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons. Ninety-seven percent of Americans favor enhanced background checks and other measures the NRA blocks.
With the nation rattled by 345 mass shootings in 2017, the deadliest year for such incidents, the public is looking to transcend NRA lobbying. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has one-third of the world’s mass shootings—25 times that of other affluent nations.
Opinion leaders create watershed moments when they selectively step out of their lane to take a strong public stand. When the relentlessly non-partisan Johnny Carson rebuked Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974, it was time for him to leave office, and it changed minds. Carson said to the surprise of many, “The public has almost become immune or inured as these revelations come up. ‘Well, all administrations are guilty [the public says],’ and that’s kind of sad to hear. You don’t really believe that politics has to be this way.”
“I’ll probably be accused by people now of being the eastern liberal establishment, and I have made jokes about what is happening—I hope not unfairly. But just trying to make humor about what has happened. But that is considered, when you do that, almost un-American,” said Carson.
The CEOs of Walmart, Levi-Strauss, and Dick’s Sporting Goods are not political fringe, nor do they speak for liberal elites. Like Johnny Carson, they speak for the soul of the nation.