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‘Courage goes along with leadership’: Business leaders take a stand on gun safety

March 11, 2021, 5:15 PM UTC

Just one decade ago, business leaders in the United States actively avoided potentially controversial political topics, staying as far away as possible from any divisive opinions that could impact their bottom line. That’s no longer the case, as the gap between the Beltway and Wall Street continues to narrow and politics become business (and business becomes politics). 

In 2015, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, took a stand against Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, and in 2016, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan spoke out against a North Carolina law requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate. After the Parkland shooting in 2018, a number of CEOs spoke out against the NRA, and Delta CEO Ed Bastian ended his airline’s discount for NRA members. 

A number of large corporations severed long-standing ties with the NRA in response to the fatal school shooting. Avis Budget Group, Best Western, Enterprise Holdings, and United Airlines all publicly ended hefty discount programs that were once available to NRA members.

The gun lobbyist group declared bankruptcy this year. 

More Americans died from gun violence last year than in any year on record, according to the Giffords Law Center, an organization with the mission to end gun violence in the United States, and the evidence is clear: Businesses can successfully work on their own and in conjunction with policymakers to address America’s gun violence problem. 

Constituents alone have not been successful in persuading politicians to get gun safety policy to the floor of the Senate, said Melissa Bean, a former Democratic representative from Illinois who is currently president and CEO of Mesirow Wealth Management, during a Fortune event on Wednesday. “Sometimes when there’s business leaders and other leaders weighing in, it can help create momentum,” she said. 

Kenneth Cole, the founder of Kenneth Cole Productions and brother-in-law of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, defined the situation more bluntly. “We are the hand that feeds the government,” he said. 

It takes courage to stand up for gun safety, added Valerie Jarrett, president of the Obama Foundation. CEOs may risk coming under attack, or they may even sell less product because of it, but if business leaders truly believe that corporations have a civic responsibility for the greater good, then courage must be found, said Jarrett.

And times are changing. This summer, many in the country joined activist movements like Black Lives Matter. “This is the direction we’re going in, and businesses need to realize that. They need to get out in front of it. In the long term this will be to their benefit even if in the short term it isn’t,” Jarrett said. 

“Courage goes along with leadership,” added Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. 

So what can business leaders do? Jarrett recommends starting at home—or at least in the office. Talk to employees and coworkers and have them buy in to the message. Then get on the phone and start connecting with your networks of clients, suppliers, and associates. Movements don’t start because one person gets on a megaphone and starts yelling, said Jarrett. “They happen on the grass-roots level, person by person.”

As the NRA becomes less powerful, Jarrett said, Congress becomes more malleable around gun safety legislation. The NRA threatening to launch campaigns against and stop donations to members of Congress who voted for legislation like background checks had a “chilling effect,” she said.

“One way to counteract that is we have to have grass-roots support for those members of Congress who are prepared to do the right thing,” Jarrett said. “As long as we have special interest groups that are willing to spend money, we have to show the force of the American people to counteract them.”

Dowling added that a monetary investment outside of D.C. is also helpful. “Businesses could initiate a process of challenge grants,” he said. One year ago, Dowling noted, he agreed to put a million dollars into grants for gun safety research and asked other health systems to match him.

“You’ve got to put some dollars on the table,” he said, “to show your commitment to the cause.”