Gun control supporters turn to new front

The American gun control movement is going corporate.

Still reeling from the stinging legislative defeats of 2013, proponents of tougher firearm regulations are increasingly turning their focus to private sector campaigns.

Gun control groups have claimed victories in recent months, successfully pushing Starbucks to declare guns unwelcome in stores and persuading Facebook to crack down on unregulated firearm solicitations.

With no end in sight to the congressional gridlock that has thwarted more stringent federal gun laws, groups say they will continue to apply pressure on major companies.

“Congress locked the door, so moms are going through the window,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.

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The gun control organization, modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has made the corporate push a third prong of its strategy, along with campaigns to influence state and federal policies, Watts said.

Pro-gun groups downplayed the likely effectiveness of these tactics, which have also been embraced by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Officials from the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America described the corporate campaign as a retread of past initiatives. 

“This is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing,” Gun Owners of America spokesman Erich Pratt said, pointing to an unsuccessful effort a decade ago to sue gun makers.

“Whenever the anti-gun groups get stymied in Congress they resort to boycotts and other private measures.”

Gun control advocates rallied behind a flurry of bills introduced last year following the previous December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, only to see them beaten back.

The legislation sought a host of strengthened restrictions, including bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, as well as an amendment seeking to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales.

The latter measure offered in April by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) was seen as having the best chance for passage. In a major blow to gun control supporters, the amendment fell six votes short of passage.

In the months after, the gun control fight was waged largely in state legislatures around the country, with both sides claiming wins.

But in September, activists won what they called a major victory with Starbucks’ request that gun owners stop bringing firearms to the company’s thousands of coffee shops, even in states with “open carry” allowances.

“The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said at the time.

The move was preceded by calls from activists and congressional Democrats, who targeted Starbucks after gun rights advocates organized a grassroots campaign to bring guns into the coffee shops to celebrate “Starbucks Appreciation Day” — a campaign that was not sponsored by the company.

Gun rights advocates stressed that Starbucks’ action is not an outright prohibition, but merely a corporate request, and suggested it is not the definitive decision that gun control groups have portrayed.

“I think they’re trying to make way more of it than it is,” Pratt said. “Starbucks has not banned people from bringing guns.”

But Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said company policies are key to the formation of “social norms” that stand as key guidelines for acceptable behavior.

“Corporations have great influence in American society,” Everitt said.

The coalition has recently called upon Visa to sever a business partnership with the NRA, saying the credit giant’s affiliation with the powerful gun lobby is effectively funding opposition to stronger regulations.

The group has collected more than 5,000 signatures from people urging the company to end its “affinity” program with the NRA. A web page run by the Rifle Association tells members that every purchase helps fund NRA programs at no cost to them and says more than $20 million has been raised to date.

“Every corporation draws lines in terms of the types of organizations it partners with,” Everitt said. “By putting your brand on this…you’re calling into question your own brand.”

Efforts to reach Visa officials Friday afternoon were unsuccessful.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam brushed the effort off as part of a futile effort to “stigmatize gun owners and gun ownership.” As evidence of the corporate campaigns’ failure, Arulanandam pointed to upward trends in the numbers of U.S. firearm purchases and gun owners.

Earlier this month, several gun control groups hailed Facebook’s announcement of new policies designed to tamp down on unregulated firearm transactions over its network.

Under the new policy, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram will block minors from seeing posts about the sales of guns and other regulated items, require pages used for that purpose to include language reminding people of the applicable legal restrictions, and warn sellers they are bound to comply with those laws.

“This was absolutely a huge win,” said Watts, who helped lead an effort pressing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to combat illegal sales over the platforms.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by shooting victim and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), also praised the action.

But another leading gun control group criticized Facebook’s action, saying it was not a victory at all.

“A mere warning to follow the law and community-based reporting will not do enough to prevent unchecked gun sales to dangerous people,” said Daniel Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. 

The NRA, meanwhile, issued a statement calling the policy shift a “welcome alternative” to activists’ ultimate goal of removing any online content that references the private sale of firearms from Facebook.

“They had to settle for an insignificant victory that they tried to portray as something more than what it was,” Arulanandam said.  “They didn’t get what they wanted.”

Still, supporters of stricter gun regulations view the Starbucks and Facebook decisions as progress.

While they maintained they have not given up on congressional action, the groups said they are planning additional, as-yet-unspecified corporate actions for 2014.

“I think you will continue to see these types of campaigns,” Everitt said.