Dick’s Sporting Goods just made a big decision on moral grounds - and, probably, a smart business one.
The announcement by one of the nation’s leading sporting-goods retailers that it will no longer sell assault-style rifles, high-capacity magazines – or any guns at all to customers under the age of 21 – is the biggest indication yet that something has changed in the national debate over guns in the wake of the massacre of 17 high-school students and educators in Parkland, Florida. The company has put much more on the line than other firms have done in ending the discounts they offer to members of the National Rifle Association.
But then again, there has always been something jarring about a retail environment where yoga mats and little-league gear are sold just a few aisles away from instruments of mass murder.
And in making this move, Dick’s also may be catching up to its own customer base.
Young people – the target demographic for sporting gear – have become the new face of the gun-control movement.
“We have tremendous respect and admiration for the students organizing and making their voices heard regarding gun violence in schools and elsewhere in our country,” the company said in a statement. “We have heard you. The nation has heard you.”
Even before the Valentine’s Day tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, America’s young people had developed a different attitude from their elders about guns - perhaps as a result of having grown up during an era in which active-shooter drills have become a part of the school day.
About 4 in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 either own firearms or live in a household where someone does, according to a poll last year by the Pew Research Center. That is roughly the same proportion as other age groups.
But when the same survey asked whether it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership, the young were significantly more likely to come down in favor of some kind of restrictions. Only 39 percent put their priority on gun rights, versus 54 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64.
And paradoxically, the Trump era has not been good for the gun-sales business, which tends to do well when there are fears that the government is coming after guns. Horrific events have not sparked the kind of paranoia they do when there is a Democrat in the White House. After last October’s mass shooting at a country-music concert in Las Vegas, the number of monthly federal background checks - one indicator of gun sales - dropped by 13 percent from levels measured a year earlier. There was another drop in November, after a gunman killed 26 people during services at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Tex.
Last fall, the stock price for Dick’s Sporting Goods fell to its lowest level since 2010, a slump it blamed on disappointing sales of hunting gear - including rifles - which the retailer’s chief financial officer Lee Belitsky said were running “much worse than our expectations.” Other sporting-goods chains, among them Cabela’s, had reported the same.
“The whole hunting business is an important part of our business, and we know there is going to be backlash on this,” Dick’s chief executive Edward Stack told the New York Times. But he added: “If the kids in Parkland are being brave enough to stand up and do this, we can be brave enough to stand up with them.”
In the long run, courage might actually be good for the bottom line.