When a corporation does something that we might consider courageous – taking an action that might hurt their bottom line or invite harsh criticism from previous supporters – we should hold them up, recognize their actions and thank them. At the moment, this applies to Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has recently taken the following steps with regard to firearms:
- Following the horrendous Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, Dick’s announced that they would be raising the age minimum to purchase firearms from 18 to 21.
- In the same action, they ended sales of assault-style weapons.
- Next, Dick’s explained to the public that they would be physically destroying the weapons they were pulling off their shelves instead of returning them to manufacturers.
- Now, the company is announcing that it will lobby for gun control in Congress. Interestingly, according to Bloomberg, the lobbyists, hired through the Glover Park Group, include individuals from several political perspectives: “John Johnson, who worked for former President Bill Clinton; Andrew King, who previously worked for Republican Senator Lindsey Graham; and Christina Brown, who worked with Democratic Senator Bob Casey.”
As the Bloomberg article also noted, becoming so involved in such a controversial issue is highly unusual for an American corporation, “for fear it will turn off customers.” Dick’s explained its actions in a statement issued after the Parkland shooting:
“We support and respect the Second Amendment, and we recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible, law-abiding citizens. But we have to stop the problem that’s in front of us. Gun violence is an epidemic that’s taking the lives of too many people, including the brightest hope for the future of America – our kids.”
Dick’s, based in Pittsburgh, is the largest sporting-goods retailer in the US. While it may be unique in its lobbying initiative, it joins several other major companies in taking important steps to reduce gun violence. Walmart, the nation’s largest gun seller; L.L. Bean; and Kroger and its Fred Meyer stores have all ceased selling weapons to consumers under 21. Walmart further is no longer selling toys online that look like assault-style rifles, and Kroger “announced in March that it would stop selling “‘assault-rifle themed periodicals.’”
If Breitbart News is to be believed, Dick’s is already facing some repercussions. “The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting sports industries, Board of Governors today unanimously voted to expel Dick’s Sporting Goods from membership for conduct detrimental to the best interests of the Foundation.” Whether this reflects a serious blow to Dick’s, and whether its executives are concerned about the Foundation’s move, is unknown, but we certainly should not be surprised about the backlash. There will undoubtedly be more fallout.
The fact that many Americans might be quite surprised by these companies’ actions – especially since very little movement like this has happened until now in the 19 years since the Columbine massacre – betrays our nation’s mindset around the priorities of for-profit entities. We learn from an early age in our country that a company’s primary goal is the bottom line – to make money (and presumably as much money as possible).
It is vitally important that we realize that this is not a universal ethos. As Steven Hill pointed out in Europe’s Promise, and as we saw earlier, there are some basic and important differences in the way the European economy and workplace function as compared to ours. Especially with regard to the relationship between companies and their communities – between making money and contributing to the common good – there is a system of codetermination, which includes the use of supervisory boards and works councils. This system brings workers and managers together to negotiate almost every aspect of work – schedules, holidays, health and safety issues, pensions, wages, length of work week, new technology, etc. (pages 54-57). Decisions are not made top-down by owners and supervisors but rather in constant structured discussions and meetings between all players (including unions). Hill cites a Swedish study that “found that two-thirds of company executives viewed codetermination as ‘very or rather positive’ for their company, because it contributed to a ‘positive climate,’ ‘made board decisions more deeply rooted among employees,’ and ‘facilitated implementation of tough decisions’” (page 55).
In addition, in Europe there exist highly successful “close government-industry partnerships and taxpayer-supported ‘national champions’ in key industrial sectors” (page 46). Similarly, Europe finances massive infrastructure projects through “strategic use of public-private partnerships” (page 49).
If there is any doubt about the efficacy of the European way, Hill points out that European nations have the “most egalitarian and democratic societies the modern world has ever seen” (page 20). They boast robust capitalist economies; competitive businesses; a productive workforce with an average of five weeks of paid vacation a year; and generally much lower poverty, homicide, incarceration, and unemployment rates than ours. Several academic studies have found that works councils “are associated with lower rates of absenteeism, more worker training, better handling of worker grievances, and smoother implementation of health and safety standards” (page 57). To be sure, our sister nations are facing their own challenges, but their successes cannot be overlooked.
Obviously, without the rampant, out-of-control gun violence that we face in the US, a European nation would not need a company like Dick’s Sporting Goods to take the risks it is taking. That, of course, is part of the point. When a company is already building into its ethos concern for the safety, health, well-being and even happiness not only of its customers and shareholders but also its employees and community neighbors – and when the overall culture puts high value on the welfare of the whole society – the profit motive and the concern for the common good go hand-in-hand; their goals are wedded, not in conflict.
We thank Dick’s and the other companies that are taking bold moves to reduce and, hopefully, end our scourge of gun violence. But even more, let us imagine and encourage a more nuanced ethos of what the true responsibilities of for-profit companies are and should be.
Hill, Steven. Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010.