Mass shootings are a problem for big business, too

Mass shootings are a problem for big business, too

Last Wednesday's shooting at the Kansas City Super Bowl parade, which killed one person and injured more than 20, was the 49th mass shooting this year in the US We are barely halfway through February.

President Biden and other lawmakers put out the expected statements, giving their condolences and demanding change. So did the Kansas City Chiefs and the NFL. But so far, corporate America has offered primarily silence.

This is a stark reversal from June 2022, when more than 500 CEOs and board chairs signed a letter urging the Senate to take "immediate action" on gun violence in the wake of the mass shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York. The momentum had been building; 145 had signed a similar letter three years earlier after a shooting at an El Paso Walmart killed 22 people.

Clearly, the appetite for this kind of outspokenness from some of America's biggest companies has evaporated; the mass shootings, however, have not. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for companies to speak out on social issues ranging from same-sex marriage rights to Black Lives Matter and racial justice. Companies took positions because they aligned with their corporate values, they claimed. And, of course, it was also good PR.

But now, the Republican Party's war on "woke capitalism" and environmental, social and governance efforts has changed the calculus. Last year, House Republicans introduced a bill designed to stop "boardroom gun control" by prohibiting the federal government from entering into contracts with companies that "discriminate" against firearm businesses and organisations. In Texas, a 2021 law requires that banks that underwrite the municipal bond market must not exclude the firearms industry. More generally, the political right has tried to punish any company it views as pushing a "liberal agenda". Case in point: After Walt Disney Co spoke out against Florida's Don't Say Gay Bill, attacking the company became a central tenet of Governor Ron DeSantis's political platform.

Against this backdrop, the bar has gotten much higher for a CEO or board to risk the backlash of publicly wading into a potentially hot-button topic. The idea that a company has a moral or ethical obligation to use its platform is passé. The litmus test is now: does the issue at hand impact a company's bottom line? When it comes to gun control, the answer from boardrooms seems to be a hard no.

But US companies are mistaken if they think gun violence doesn't fall into the category of a core business issue. The Violence Project Mass Shooter Database has found that businesses all too often find themselves the unintended host of gun violence: according to the research group, 20% of mass shootings have taken place at retailers; 15% at restaurants, bars and nightclubs; and 13% at factories and warehouses. From an employee perspective, 30% of all mass shootings are workplace-related -- meaning shooters targeted their current or former place of employment. (There is no universal definition of a mass shooting; a shooting is included in the Violence Project's tally if four or more people are killed.) Meanwhile, gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety has found that employers lose nearly US$1.5 million (53.8 million baht) every day in productivity, revenue and costs associated with victims of gun violence. (Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, helped found and is a current supporter of Everytown.)

Some companies have even started to recognise the potential damage mass shootings and gun violence can have on their business in the risk factors portion of their annual reports. Walmart Inc, for example, has warned since 2020 that "active shooter situations [such as those that occurred in our US stores]" could hurt its operations and financial performance. The following year Kroger Co started using similar language. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, like several restaurant chains, includes mass shootings in a list of factors that could hurt its business, the economy and consumer confidence.

In the current political environment, the cost for companies that speak out could be high. But the cost of remaining silent is higher. ©2024 Bloomberg

Beth Kowitt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune Magazine.

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