Brands find themselves in a Catch-22 situation as social media onslaught against US gun lobby grows in intensity
NRA-linked companies duck for cover
It started with a list of 32 companies – banks, airlines, car rental firms, health insurance providers and more; each offered discounts to members of the US National Rifle Association.
In return for their $40 subscription, supporters of America’s right to bear arms were entitled to not just discounted gun insurance but also 65 per cent off travel bookings, reduced rates on removal services and even access to a wine club. But last week that list, compiled by a liberal website ThinkProgress, went viral. Consumers took to social media with increasingly angry demands that each of the 32 drop its links to the NRA.
It was all part of a backlash against America’s gun culture – not led by the usual activist groups but by the young people who survived the horrific massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month. First National Bank of Omaha, the largest privately owned bank in the country, moved fast to protect its business from the spiralling onslaught of anti-NRA hashtags and memes.
It was among the first to announce it was ditching an NRA-branded credit card, which offered a $40 signing bonus and cash back on purchases at sporting goods stores.
“Customer feedback has caused us to review our relationship with the NRA,” said spokesman Kevin Langin. Since then, some of the country’s biggest airlines (Delta and United), car rental firms (Hertz and Avis) and banks have followed suit. By Tuesday night, all but eight of the 32 had distanced themselves from the NRA.
It represents a rapid victory for the new wave of gun control activists who have seized the limelight since 17 people were shot dead in Florida. While previous tragedies have failed to change America’s gun laws, campaigners believe this time they can harness consumer dollars to rein in a powerful lobby and give politicians a chance to do the right thing.
The strategy is simple, according to David Hogg, 17, who huddled with classmates as a gunman poured bullets into the corridors and classrooms of his high school. “The NRA owns these politicians,” he tells The National.
“The NRA thinks of politicians like dogs and they are the owners with a leash.”
If the goal is legislation – increasing the minimum age of gun ownership to 21, introducing universal background checks and improving mental health care – then reducing the pull of vested interests is a vital step to success, he says. It remains a tall order.
The arms organisation claims to have five million members (critics dispute that number) and can count on annual revenues of as much as $360 million.
That makes it more than a mere manufacturers’ association.
By defending the Second Amendment it is also seen as defending something central to American life and the Constitution.
Its clout has been on display since the shooting.
Last week President Donald Trump announced himself to be in favour of increasing the minimum age of gun owners.
But after lunching with senior NRA figures on Sunday he failed to mention the idea when he met state governors to discuss the issue a day later.
Gun control advocates know they cannot compete with that sort of access.
Instead, they hope the energy of the new breed centred around Mr Hogg and his friends can make up for what they lack in lobbying connections.
Nate Lerner, executive director of the Democratic Coalition and developer of the Boycott Trump app, says the movement emerged in an organic way on social media but is now having a real world impact. “There’s no one person or group doing it, which speaks to the strength of the movement,” he says. There are plans for a Boycott the NRA website, he says, but developers could not keep up with the spontaneous energy of the students and their supporters.
Each company that drops the NRA represents a significant victory.
“Even if they are just removing these ties, as far as giving deals on hotels, not only does the NRA lose business but it is very, very symbolic. It is sending a message that the NRA is an extremist organisation that has no place in politics.”
The ultimate aim is to knock the gun lobby from its privileged position in public life, not just from politics but also from its place on credit cards.
Removing it from stock portfolios might be even harder.
Millions of Americans hold stakes in gun manufacturers or companies doing business with the NRA without realising it.
Several state pension funds have holdings in American Outdoor Brands, the company once known as Smith & Wesson and the maker of the AR-15 semi-automatic – “America’s most popular rifle”, according to the NRA, and the weapon most often associated with US mass shootings.
Index funds, which track stock market performance, are another way investors may hold an interest in gun makers without realising it. BlackRock and Vanguard, two of the world’s biggest asset managers, own chunks of American Outdoor Brands as well as Sturm Ruger, the country’s largest gun manufacturer, and Vista Outdoor.
Vista Outdoor also owns brands such as Giro and CamelBak, which make bicycle helmets and water carriers, prompting a string of cycling shops across the country to cut ties.
Velo Cult Bike Shop in Portland posted on its Facebook page: “Any company which manufactures guns and ammunition is profiting directly from the NRA and is complicit in its agenda. Let’s keep this about the NRA and not the guns. The NRA sucks.”
On Wednesday, one of the country's largest sporting goods stores said it was immediately ending sales of assault-style rifles and will no longer sell guns to anyone under 21 years old following the school massacre.
Edward Stack, chief executive of Dick's Sporting Goods, said on "Good Morning America" that after the shooting the company "felt it needed to do something".
For its part, Blackrock has said it plans to speak with gun makers to hear their response to the Florida shooting.
However, at least one well-known investor believes it would be “ridiculous” to boycott gun owners.
Warren Buffett said he would not be imposing his own views on 370,000 employees and a million shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway.
“I think what the kids are doing there is very admirable, but I don’t think that Berkshire should say, ‘We’re not going to do business with people that hold guns,’” he said in an interview on CNBC on Monday.
The result is a complex web of interests that snakes through American life and which gun control supporters must navigate if they are going to make their boycott work.
The NRA is fighting back, too. Its messaging emphasises that members are ordinary people – doctors, farmers, shopkeepers, fire fighters, nurses and school teachers – who are being hit in the pocket because of one teenager’s actions at a Florida high school.
“The law-abiding members of the NRA had nothing at all to do with the failure of that school’s security preparedness, the failure of America’s mental health system, the failure of the National Instant Check System or the cruel failures of both federal and local law enforcement,” it said. Rich Galen, a veteran Republican strategist, said the NRA maintained a powerful position and had always been able to use gun control pushes to boost its own membership.
Even a slew of polls suggesting support for tighter regulations was at its highest since 1993 would probably make little difference, Mr Galen said.
“What they don’t measure very well is the depth of support,” he said. “And if you are a Second Amendment person there is no other issue.”
Republicans in Georgia have already come to the NRA’s defence.
The state senate voted on Monday to remove a $50m fuel tax benefit from Delta – which is headquartered in Atlanta – unless it reinstates its ties with the NRA.
And for every state that reacts like Georgia, there is another that takes the opposing view.
Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, quickly spotted an opportunity to make a point and a headline.
“While Georgia politicians may disagree with the airline’s principled stand, we here in the Empire State welcome Delta with open arms,” he said, issuing an invitation to relocate.
Such is the polarisation of the debate that companies are learning they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Ultimately the decision comes down to a careful calculation of reputational cost, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consumer research firm.
“How well can they position themselves so that they are being viewed as honest and supportive of what is a national crisis,” he told the Associated Press, “and not walking away from the Second Amendment?”
Mr Hogg, whose assured delivery has made him a regular on TV political shows, wants to make it a no-brainer. He is calling on holidaymakers to boycott Florida during the upcoming spring break unless the state enacts legislation to ensure such a terrible shooting can never happen again.
And he has his sights set firmly on those companies such as FedEx, which still offers NRA discounts, or streaming services such as Amazon, which broadcasts the gun group’s TV channel.
“If people continue to put economic pressure on the few companies that still advertise with the NRA, like FedEx and Amazon – by boycotting them, by selling their stock, by taking economic action against them – until they refuse to repeat the NRA propaganda, that is how we get things done,” Mr Hogg said. “They don’t care about our lives; they care about money.”