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EDITORIAL: On gun control, business can flex its influence

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Business leaders have begun speaking up on a variety of social issues, including gun control. | PHOTO COURTESY OF COLIN LLOYD/UNSPLASH

America recently saw yet another horrific act of violence perpetrated with a gun, this time claiming the lives of seven people and wounding more who were simply looking to enjoy their annual hometown Fourth of July parade near Chicago.

We’ll probably never know why this deranged young man felt the need to upend the lives of so many. I’m haunted by the story of bystanders rescuing a toddler whose parents were both killed by the shooter, leaving him an orphan who will likely barely remember them.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

As this sick carousel of violence, blame, despair and apathy in America continues to spin though, I have to wonder whether our business community can play a bigger role to help change our reality.

In the First State, the Delaware Business Roundtable, a non-partisan, volunteer consortium of state CEOs, published a strongly worded statement of support for a package of gun control legislation proposed by Gov. John Carney just days after the shocking attack at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

“We believe we have reached a tipping point, a time when policymakers must enact bipartisan, common sense legislation to strengthen public safety,” said the group made of Delaware’s top bankers, doctors, educators, lawyers, builders, scientists and more.

I asked the Roundtable’s executive director, Bob Perkins, whether it was a difficult conversation for Delaware’s top business leaders to interject themselves into a social issue like gun control. He said that, surprisingly, it wasn’t.

“In early June, right after the Uvalde tragedy, our executive committee asked Attorney General Kathy Jennings to come and speak with us about the situation in Delaware and the legislative issues around it. I asked her what the business community’s involvement has been in gun safety legislation over the years, and she paused for a minute, and she said, ‘It’s been silence,’” Perkins recalled.

After that realization, the Roundtable decided to speak out in support of efforts they believed would better protect Delawareans, including in their offices and businesses, as no corner of American life currently seems safe.

“It’s untenable that we continue to believe that the current set of safety measures is enough to try to mitigate the risk of additional gun violence. So, we felt compelled to speak up to act to become involved, and we plan to continue that,” Perkins said.

That activism by executives isn’t a new phenomenon, but the outgrowth of a society that is increasingly using boycotts to express their criticisms. Whereas the Friedman doctrine of “profit before anything else” held sway from the 1980s to the early 2000s, a new generation of CEOs is embracing what writer Alan Fleischmann calls the “Age of the CEO Statesman,” where they are willing to engage in the public debate, even if it hurts the bottom line.

Perkins said that he supports that change, saying “businesses and CEOs can make an enormous difference. They are important stakeholders in our society who need to be heard.”

Their involvement on issues like gun control could be powerful. After all, business and economic pressure have been useful in making lasting changes throughout American and world history.

The American civil rights movements deftly expressed economic pressure through the Montgomery bus boycott, Memphis sanitation strike and more while companies like Coca-Cola and General Electric aided the downfall of South Africa’s apartheid government through boycotts and divestments of their own.

More recently, the pressure by companies, athletes and artists contributed to a change in government and law in North Carolina following the 2016 approval of the so-called “bathroom bill,” which prevented transgender people there from using bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity. To say the backlash was swift would be an understatement.

Major firms like Adidas, PayPal and Deutsche Bank scuttled plans to expand in North Carolina, and film productions reconsidered shooting there. Major musicians canceled planned concerts while the NBA moved its All-Star Weekend and the NCAA moved its March Madness tournament out of the state.

All told, the Associated Press estimated the economic damage at more than $3.76 billion and 3,000 jobs in the decade or so following the bill’s passage. But less than a year later, voters ousted their governor and installed then-Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who worked with statehouse Republicans to peel back the law.

At the end of the day, the old adage is true: Money talks.

And increasingly our CEOs and business leaders are too, which is a welcome sign in my mind.

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