Walmart, Dick's Restrict Gun Sales as Congressional Talks Falter

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(Bloomberg) -- The pushback started soon after Parkland.

By Feb. 22, it was in high gear. First National Bank of Omaha said it’d end its business relationship with the National Rifle Association, followed by similar pledges from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Symantec, Avis Budget Group and MetLife. On Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods jumped into the fray, saying it’d halt the sale of assault-style rifles and raise its firearms purchasing age to 21. Hours later, Walmart matched the new age requirement.

Corporate America has taken action following mass shootings before, but never quite like this. Spurred on by the impassioned high-school survivors in Parkland, Florida, the reaction, for now at least, has been broader and more meaningful. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough” anymore, Dick’s CEO Edward Stack said in a statement, adding later: “It’s time to do something.”

All of which stands in stark contrast to deliberations in the nation’s capital, where lawmakers are, once again, struggling to move beyond thoughts and prayers. After bold initial talk from both sides of the aisle, and from President Donald Trump, the conversation is slowly sinking into the same gridlock that paralyzed previous efforts to tighten gun control. At this point, even a narrow policy solution -- strengthening the system of background checks for gun buyers -- is bogging down. The additional demands of gun-control Democrats are unacceptable to gun-rights-backing Republicans and vice-versa.

"I don’t know that this is the moment we’re going to get a breakthrough," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a gun-control advocate from Connecticut, said in an interview. “Clearly Republicans have realized they’ve got to position themselves differently. I just don’t know that it’s going to happen as quickly as next week."

Dick’s Shares Rally

Whether America’s voters will accept legislative inaction once again will be answered in mid-term elections in November. Corporate executives aren’t waiting. They’ve already heard plenty from their customers.

Walmart -- which stopped the sale of modern sporting rifles in 2015, citing slow sales -- said it would in addition remove items “resembling assault-style rifles” from its website, including airsoft guns and toys.

“We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller of firearms and go beyond Federal law by requiring customers to pass a background check before purchasing any firearm,” the company said in a statement. “Our heritage as a company has always been in serving sportsmen and hunters, and we will continue to do so in a responsible way.”

Read more: A QuickTake on what’s next in gun debate

Dick’s also raised the age for buying firearms to 21, and said it would stop offering high-capacity magazines. In a sign of just how fevered the gun-control movement now is in some consumer circles -- especially in the wealthier metropolis areas on the East and West coasts -- shares of Dick’s actually rallied on Wednesday even as the broader market slumped. Twitter was full of posts from people pledging to buy new gear from the store as an expression of their appreciation.

At the Dick’s store in the central New Jersey suburb of West Windsor, morning shoppers were unaware of the company’s policy change but supportive when it was explained to them.

“Some people may disagree with it and stop shopping here, but if you’re for safety you’re going to spend here,” said Mirian Noyola, 19. “They’ll more than make up” for the customers they lose.

Like Pete Konovitch. A 50-year-old retired New York City police officer, he rushed over to both Dick’s and its affiliate Field & Stream store today to cancel his memberships. “They have lost me as a customer,” Konovitch said outside the Field & Stream store in Melville, Long Island. He said he owns five handguns he uses for target shooting. “I don’t like anyone who politicizes their business."

It’s that kind of reaction that helps explains why not all companies are distancing themselves from the gun industry. FedEx Corp., for instance, has said it’s maintaining discounts for NRA members as has HotelPlanner.com.

And Delta Air Lines Inc. got quick pushback in its home state of Georgia after it said would stop offering discounted rates to NRA members. A bill currently winding its way through the state congress would strip Delta, as well as other airlines that fly from Atlanta, of a jet fuel tax break. Casey Cagle, the state’s lieutenant governor, had threatened the move unless the airline reversed its decision. “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back,” Cagle tweeted on Feb. 26.

Delta’s experience is something of a microcosm of the push-and-pull that has ground lawmakers to a halt in Washington. The gun-rights crowd, while not as large as the gun-control crowd, is passionate about the issue. Come election time, many of them cast their votes solely based on candidates’ gun policies.

Stack, Dick’s CEO, seemed ready to move beyond concern over alienating those Americans.

“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,” he said. “But we have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us. Gun violence is an epidemic.”

Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, which operates Bloomberg News, serves as a member of Everytown for Gun Safety’s advisory board and is a donor to the group. Everytown for Town for Gun Safety advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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