Jonathan Alter, an author and MSNBC analyst, is at work on a biography of Jimmy Carter.
Even if Congress takes action on the bump stocks or other modifications used by the mass murderer in Las Vegas, Washington will not be the center of change on gun violence. The president and Congress are owned by the NRA, and public attention will soon shift away from the latest massacre, as it always does.
But there’s reason for hope in states that are hungry to keep and attract business, which means every state in the union. Gun safety advocates should take heart from the backlash against bathroom bills and other anti-gay laws in red states. The institutions that stood up in those fights — from Apple to the NCAA — offer a path forward.
Corporations have a moral and fiduciary duty to enhance the safety of their workplaces and other venues they use. When mass shootings were rare, they weren’t as much of a concern. Now that they’re a common occurrence, the calculus for locating businesses, conventions, sporting events and concerts must change. Companies cannot fully guarantee the safety of their employees and customers anywhere, but risks are clearly greater in “gun lax” states.
Those states should now be faced with a choice: They can have assault weapons and gun show loopholes. Or they can have good jobs and events from responsible corporations. But they can’t have both.
Imagine if chief executives looking out for the safety of their employees and conference attendees announced that they would locate new facilities and hold conventions, concerts and other gatherings only in “gun responsible” states (which different companies could define differently). We might see activity overnight in several state legislatures.
Moving the debate over “gun safety” (a preferable term to “gun control”) to the states is not ideal. Gun violence is a national problem and deserves a national remedy. And the Swiss-cheese map caused by differing state laws undermines efforts to protect the public. For example, the guns used by gangs in Chicago largely come from across the state line with Indiana, which has looser gun laws than Illinois.
But efforts to do something have to begin somewhere, and that means focusing on what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called “the laboratories of democracy.”
State laws can be effective. After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Congress resisted pressure from President Barack Obama and refused to act. But Connecticut passed the strongest state laws in the country — with expanded background checks and magazine capacity restrictions — and gun crimes there are down.
The lobbying group that emerged from that massacre, Everytown for Gun Safety, and its offshoot, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, are scoring other important victories in state capitals. Twenty-five states have passed laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Voters in three states last year approved referendums containing common-sense gun regulation.
Winning support for other gun safety measures has been tougher. The nine states that require universal background checks are all blue. Same for the seven states that ban the sale of assault weapons. But on other inflammatory social issues, even red-state Republicans will confront the conservative base and bend their personal convictions when jobs are on the line.
Boycotts can carry enormous social power. In 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill allowing businesses and individuals to use religious beliefs to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced that the company was cancelling all programs that would bring employees to Indiana, and Angie’s List aborted an expansion that would have netted 1,000 jobs for the state. Most major employers in Indiana denounced the legislation. Within 10 days, Pence and legislators reversed course with a new bill that protected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
In 2016, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a “bathroom bill” that required transgender people to use bathrooms based on the sex they were assigned at birth. The NCAA withdrew all tournaments from the state, and PayPal canceled a large new facility. According to an Associated Press analysis, the state stood to lose $3.76 billion from the law. While surveys showed North Carolina voters supported the bill in principle, they turned strongly against it on economic grounds and elected a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who this year signed a partial repeal. It’s no mere coincidence that “bathroom bills” introduced in 10 other red states are going nowhere.
Will major businesses step up on guns? It depends in part on how hard their employees, customers and shareholders push executives. But with more gun-toting nuts on the way, it’s important that all companies make a hard assessment of what legislation they need to protect their workers and other stakeholders from bodily harm.
Insurance considerations might also be relevant. Premiums for concerts and sports events within rifle range of tall buildings should logically go higher in gun-lax states that allow the sale of easily modified semiautomatic weapons that can spray bullets on crowds. If premiums rose, they would represent another cost that would dampen business and thus help advance common-sense gun safety legislation.
The NRA and its toadies say that no law could have definitively prevented this or any other massacre. This is a dodge: Traffic laws don’t prevent all car crashes or air bags all deaths in those accidents. But they help. If the carnage in Las Vegas prompts even a few more state experiments, something good may yet come from this evil.