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Why CEOs are leading on guns

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Bloomberg View

More than a few large U.S. companies have moved on guns in recent weeks. Dick's Sporting Goods said it will no longer sell semi-automatic rifles. Wal-Mart and Fred Meyer stores won't sell guns to anyone under 21. Delta, United and assorted car-rental companies are ending discount and sponsorship programs with the National Rifle Association, which continues to oppose basic gun-safety measures.

Yet the only gun-safety bill Republican leaders seem willing to consider is one that would make government agencies submit records to the background-check system — something they should already be doing.

Why are CEOs and members of Congress responding so differently?

Business leaders are sensitive to changes in the market because they don't like losing customers. When consumer preferences and opinions change, companies adjust. Polls show that a clear majority of Americans and gun owners support the kinds of changes the companies have made. In this case, good policy is good business.

Political leaders, oddly enough, are sometimes more sensitive to a narrower slice of opinion. On guns, they often discount the view of most of their constituents and pay closer attention to the people who vote in primaries — a fraction of the general electorate, holding more extreme views. As a result, groups like the NRA can take politicians hostage by threatening to block their re-election.

President Donald Trump is aware of this dynamic. In a White House meeting this week, he called out members of his own party for being NRA toadies: "They have great power over you people," Trump told them. He's right.

Initially, Trump pushed Republicans to "come up with a strong, strong bill, and really strong on background checks." He said the bipartisan bill to expand background checks to nearly all gun purchases, which didn't make it through the Senate, should also raise the age for purchasing a semi-automatic rifle to 21. But the White House is already showing signs of retreat, a familiar pattern for a president who routinely flip-flops on major policy issues.

Voters need to take matters into their own hands. They should call their legislators and demand they support universal background checks and other steps to keep guns away from dangerous people. And if their elected officials refuse, voters should vow to take their business elsewhere. That's how it works for consumers — and it can work that way for voters, too, if they exert themselves.

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