On Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods (Dick’s) announced it will no longer sell assault-style rifles and raised the minimum purchase age of firearms to 21. After the Parkland shooting, the gun-control debate has reclaimed the public stage with many companies choosing to break ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA). The CEO of Dick’s, Ed Stack, made a choice to step into the arena and said

Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of gun owners in this country are responsible, law-abiding citizens. But we have to help solve the problem that’s in front of us. ... We’re going to take a stand and step up and tell people our view and, hopefully, bring people along into the conversation.”

Why it matters

Last fall, APCO conducted a survey among 1,000 hyper-aware and influential U.S. consumers to understand expectations for how companies can best take a stand on the issues that matter. We learned that:

  • 95% of those interviewed believe companies have the ability to create a better society,
  • 90% expect companies to be involved in taking on society’s most pressing issues, and
  • 71% say it is acceptable for companies to take a stand on a political or social issue, even if it is controversial
  • Though, when we asked what topics it is okay for CEOs to speak out on, gun control was ranked last and was the MOST controversial (only 55% Republicans said it was okay to sometimes or always speak out on gun control, while 83% of Democrats felt this way, and 71% of Independents).

Why Dick’s move is bold?

The move directly affects Dick’s bottom line, though Stack himself has said this impact would not have a “meaningful impact” on the business, as gun sales no longer make up a significant portion of their business. But, Wall Street approves of the move and after the announcement  Dick’s stock prices went up. 

However, there are potential consequences beyond simply forgoing sales of these firearms. In this politicized environment, Dick’s and Stack risk alienating customers with this decision. The first key point of our corporate advocacy research is to know your audience. According to a 2017 Pew study, gun ownership is far more common among Republicans and Republican leaning Independents than among Democrats or Democratic leaning Independents. We know from our research that Republicans are less likely to support companies taking a stand on political or social issue actions (Republicans 56% versus 81% of Democrats and 71% of Independents) and they are particularly averse to actions around gun control. Additionally, in late 2016, Simmons conducted research on buying behaviors by political affiliation; Dick’s took a top spot on the list of top 10 retailers Conservatives reported they were most likely to shop at, along with other sporting goods retailers. Thus, Dick’s stance on an already politically sensitive issue would seem to alienate some of its customer base. 

Why it could work?

The issue aligns with one of Dick’s business areas/expertise, which is a key element of effective corporate advocacy. In our survey, 89% of our hyper-aware and influential consumers said they want actions to align with a company’s business expertise; as a business, you should know what you are talking about. The Parkland shooting and gun sales, both have direct ties into Dick’s business.

Stack acknowledged that a Dick's store in Florida had legally sold the Parkland murder suspect, Nikolas Cruz, a shotgun last year. It was not the weapon used in the attack. “But it could have been,” Stack said.

Stack made the conscious choice that they did not want to be a part of the gun narrative anymore. This sentiment suggests that Stack also sees continuing the practice of selling these weapons as inconsistent with his company’s values, especially if they are sold to or are used by mass shooters. Two of their four values are commitment and passion. Dick’s is committed to ‘relentless improvement’ and passion for their community.  In which case, taking a short-term financial hit to correct this misalignment is an area where Dick’s may receive broad support: 88% of those we interviewed agreed companies should sacrifice short-term financial gains if they are incompatible with the company's values.

Finally, there was grand consensus in our research that companies now serve some functions in society that were previously reserved only for the government with 85% of respondents agreeing. Given the polarization of the country, and the lack of government action on certain issues, the public seems open to the idea of other actors stepping up. Stack said to NBC News that, "The systems in place are not sufficient to be able to stop this. So we decided we needed to take a stand here."

Dick’s, as a seller of these firearms, felt compelled to act given perceived government inaction. Stack decided they would do what they could as a company to fill the void. There is an emphasis on the do element here. Those interviewed for our research did not think a CEO’s simple vocalizing of political opinions is enough. They want action. Dick’s did something and followed a key pillar of corporate advocacy which is to do, not just talk about it. While there are some elements of risk with this action, it is a bold statement and one we will likely see more of by companies in this uncertain political climate.

If you would like to know more about our corporate advocacy research, please reach out to Amy Garrick (agarrick@apcoworldwide.com) or Katie Sprehe (ksprehe@apcoworldwide.com) and read our recent research report.


Amy Garrick
Amy Garrick

Amy Garrick is senior research manager with APCO Insight, the opinion research group at APCO Worldwide, and is based in Washington, D.C. Read More

April Gillis
April Gillis

April Gillis is a senior research analyst with APCO Insight, the opinion research group at APCO Worldwide and is based in Washington, D.C. Read More