The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School carnage of February 2018 is yet another appalling tragedy that occurred in the United States due to the current regulations on the commercialization of assault weapons.
Seventeen people – children and adults – were killed when the 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the high school armed with an AR-15 rifle and multiple magazines. He was formerly a student at Douglas, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons and had reportedly been receiving treatment for mental health issues. Sadly, the dynamics of the attack followed a usual pattern to which we have become accustomed.
As reported by a Mother Jones’ Investigation, 25 mass shootings occurred in the United States only from 2015 onwards. The list of similar tragedies is long and death toll appalling. Just a few months ago, in October 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers in Las Vegas killing 58 people and injuring almost 500.
These numbers constitute conclusive evidence per se. As Christopher Murphy, senator for Connecticut, rightly pointed out: “This happens nowhere else other than the United States of America. This epidemic of mass slaughter, this scourge of school shooting after school shooting. It only happens here not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction. We are responsible.”
The right of ordinary people to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution as adopted on 15 December 1791. It is part of the first ten amendments included in the Bill of Rights that aimed at giving citizens more confidence in the government and contain many of today’s Americans most valued freedoms. The amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
From a legal perspective, it is possible to limit constitutional rights where the enjoyment of such rights in an unrestrained way may end up infringing the fundamental rights of other individuals. As a matter of fact, constitutional values sometimes exist in disharmony. For instance, protected speech and publication may jeopardize the due process rights of criminal suspects. If this is true, nothing prevents the United States legislator from limiting the right of the people to keep and bear arms using an approach of balancing competing individual interests, where the unrestricted enjoyment of such a right may lead to serious infringements of fundamental rights of others.
Reasonable limitations of the right to bear arms should have both subjective and objective dimension. The former should forbid individuals who have not reached a certain age or have experienced mental health issues to buy or possess firearms; whilst the latter should forbid ordinary citizens to bear assault rifles, other automatic and semi-automatic firearms, as well as any device that could allow a weapon to mimic the rapid discharge of an automatic one (e.g., the so-called “bump stocks“). The use of such weapons and devices should be restricted to military and law-enforcement personnel. These limitations, where implemented, would not jeopardize the very nature of the right of the people to keep and bear weapons whilst, at the same time, the fundamental rights of the entire community would be safeguarded.
However, no effective legislation has been enacted by the U.S. Congress. Some limitations have been introduced only at state level. For instance, the General Assembly of Maryland enacted the State’s Firearm Safety Act of 2013 (FSA), which inter alia criminalizes the act of possessing, selling, transferring, purchasing, or receiving an assault weapon and detachable large-capacity magazines. In an interesting decision taken by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (No. 14-1945) on 21 February 2017, the judicial body ruled that the FSA does not contravene the Second Amendment affirming that the court had “no power to extend Second Amendment protection to weapons of war.”
Support for stricter gun control laws has spiked in polls conducted after each mass shooting occurred during the latest years, hitting eventually its highest level in at least a quarter-century. At the present time, 68 percent of Americans are in favor of the adoption of such laws. One may wonder how it could be possible that in a democratic society the legislator remains inert where the vast majority of citizens are asking for intervention. This leads us to the first corporate social responsibility issue to be analyzed.
Irresponsible use of lobbying practices
The reasons behind such a situation, which appears, at first sight, paradoxical, lie in the irresponsible lobbying practices adopted by the gun industry. For decades, companies have opposed the introduction of any limitation to the commercialization of firearms. Such a strategy has been pursued openly but mainly through the actions of the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), which is an American non-profit organization which advocates for gun rights and is considered as one of the top three most influential lobbying groups in Washington, DC. The organization’s overall revenue, which includes membership dues, program fees, and other contributions, has boomed in recent years – rising to nearly $350 million in 2013. In particular, the organization constantly receives millions of dollars in donations from corporations and, although it is not required to disclose the names of its contributors, some major gunmakers like Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Company, MidwayUSA, and Beretta have revealed large donations in the past. A glaring example of how the NRA uses this money also to manipulate public opinion is represented by the advertisement film “Trigger the Vote” starring Chuck Norris, which tried to instil in the minds of American citizens the idea that: “the Second Amendment is under attack like never before, and the best way to protect it is by exercising your right to vote.”
Moreover, American politicians are becoming increasingly vulnerable to lobbying practices because of the historic US Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which prevents the government from setting limits on corporate spending for political advertising allowing groups and individuals to back – or attack – candidates. In an inspiring speech published online by the New York Times on 9 October 2013, President Obama underlined how, as a consequence of the more aggressive corporate lobbying, “ordinary Americans are shut out of the [political] process.”
As a result, it is not surprising that, although in 2017 the NRA spent at least $4.1m on lobbying, most of its influence currently stems directly from the supreme court’s Citizens United decision. The NRA bet big on 2016’s presidential election, making independent expenditures worth $53.4m and obtaining extremely positive results (the NRA poured $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost).
It is such a misuse of corporate wealth and power that induces American leaders to act even contrary to prevailing public opinion. This is a burning issue that can be resolved only through the direct intervention of the legislator establishing, for instance, a greater level of transparency in corporate lobbying practices.
Absence of corporate social responsibility solutions
In such a situation of impasse, where the adoption of effective legal instruments to limit the commercialization of firearms still appears to be a distant mirage, are the corporations themselves that have to assume social responsibility for their own actions and operate accordingly. The adoption of corporate social responsibility solutions is a matter of paramount importance where state regulation is ineffective and cannot safeguard the interest of the community. If it sounds utopian to expect that the gun industry itself would adopt such solutions, they could be effectively implemented in other parts of the supply chain that are less involved in the above-mentioned political strategy.
For instance, distributors, which sell a wider range of products, can voluntarily decide to adopt initiatives to limit the commercialization of certain firearms to individuals at risk. As a result, the circumstance that two of the nation’s leading gun sellers – Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods – adopted a voluntary corporate social responsibility measure consisting of limiting the sale of any gun only to customers over 21 years of age, has to be warmly welcomed. Such initiatives can be extremely beneficial for the involved corporations, which will compensate for the lower sales of firearms with an enhanced corporate reputation that can be an additional source of competitive advantage.
Another fundamental role can be played by large investors and private equity firms, which could use the threat of selling the stocks as leverage to foster a more socially responsible corporate behavior. Emblematic has been the BlackRock CEO’s letter circulated in January 2018. In the letter, Larry Fink rejected Milton Friedman’s shareholder-primacy governance and embraced sustainability and stakeholder-focused governance as supported by scholars like R. Edward Freeman. Following a similar path, in the aftermath of the carnage, Cerberus Capital Management, a U.S. private equity firm, said it is to sell its stake in the maker of the AR15-style rifle used in the Newtown school shootings.
The adoption of such corporate social responsibility measures has to be widely praised and encouraged. It is the demonstration that, even if slowly, the challenging work that many academics, political activists, and industry experts have been doing for the last two decades to foster good corporate governance is eventually showing its first positive results.