Like a lot of dads, Fred Guttenberg loved to take his kids camping. Also like a lot of dads, he geared up for his trips with a visit to Dick’s Sporting Goods. That’s where he bought the family tent, the air mattresses, and the camp-stove fuel. With his son, Jesse, and his daughter, Jaime, Guttenberg camped at parks all over the state of Florida. “Those are memories, with both of my kids, that I’ll always cherish,” Guttenberg says. “They’re all I’ve got now.”
On February 14, Jaime Guttenberg, a student at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, was murdered when Nikolas Cruz opened fire on his former classmates, killing 17. Following two weeks of funerals and vigils, and the first flickers of the surviving students’ activism, the Parkland teenagers returned to class. But something else happened that day. The CEO of Dick’s, Edward Stack, went on Good Morning America and said that the sporting-goods retailer, the largest in the country, with stores in 47 states, would no longer be selling assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines. And if customers were under 21, Dick’s wouldn’t sell them any guns at all.
Stack is a navy-suited business type, but when he appeared on TV he sounded more like an activist. He spoke in simple terms. “We need to do something,” he said, dismissing the potential backlash. “If the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these [products] out.”
It was a powerful gesture. “I didn’t see it coming,” Guttenberg says. “It was one of the few moments that week that made me smile.”
But it wasn’t an easy thing to do—not in a divided country and not by a multibillion-dollar retail chain. In the past few years, and especially since the election of Donald Trump, some of the nation’s largest and most visible corporations have weighed in on a range of polarizing topics. What at first seemed like a fad or a marketing ploy has morphed into a new way of living, shopping, and politicking in America. Forget the culture wars. Now we fight the commerce wars.
The debate over gun control—and the way it intersects with the outdoor industry and some of its most prominent brands and retailers, including Dick’s, REI, and Yeti—shows just how messy the conflict can be. In fact, the closer you look at any single company that takes a strong position on the issue, the harder it is to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish, even if it sounds like they’re on your side.
America has a long tradition of gaining social leverage through economic pressure, including consumer boycotts, corporate lobbying, and high-profile endorsements. (Witness Nike’s deployment of Colin Kaepernick and the backlash that followed.) But in the age of Trump, companies are adopting a wide variety of public stances. “Over the past two or three years, it’s come to a head,” says Akshay Rao, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota.
After the Parkland shooting, for example, over 20,000 REI customers signed a petition calling for the co-op to stop carrying products made by Vista Outdoor brands. Vista is the Utah-based parent company of CamelBak and Giro, but its real moneymaker is ammunition. REI responded by placing a hold on Vista orders.
Six weeks later, the National Rifle Association alerted its membership that Yeti had ceased offering discounts to the NRA’s charitable arm, the NRA Foundation. The statement hinted that members should let Yeti know how they felt about that. Yeti pointed out that it had ended discounts for a number of organizations. The episode concluded, perhaps inevitably, with gun lovers blowing up $ 300 coolers on YouTube.
Businesses and CEOs often adopt a proud tone when addressing political topics, even if the issues fall outside their industries. As REI said in its Vista statement, “Companies are showing they can contribute if they are willing to lead.”
It’s worth remembering how quickly companies have changed their approach. Consider Target. At the company’s 2011 shareholder meeting, its CEO at the time faced questions about gay marriage. He punted. “We are going to be neutral on that particular issue,” he said, “as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view.” But in 2016, the Minnesota-based retailer posted a message on its website encouraging customers to use the restroom corresponding to their gender identity—a response to state legislatures passing anti-LGBTQ bills. It was a call for equality that, Target hoped, would be “relevant for the conversations currently underway,” according to the message.
The move earned Target equal parts praise and scorn. Other companies had similar policies, but few publicized them, and Target’s actions quickly gave rise to protests, Flush Target billboards, and a petition reportedly signed by 1.5 million customers pledging to boycott the store.
Why risk boycotts and blown-up coolers? In part, it’s a response to cultural trends. If corporations are people and CEOs are celebrities (Elon Musk, anyone?), it makes sense that both would be more likely to share their beliefs. When everyone has a voice, we’re more apt to notice those who say nothing. As Leslie Gaines-Ross, of public relations firm Weber Shandwick, puts it: “No company wants to be shamed on social media for not speaking up.”
Customers appear to agree. Over the past few years, a series of polls by the research firm Global Strategy Group asked participants whether corporations should stand up for their political beliefs. In 2013, only 44 percent believed that they should. In 2017, that number jumped to 76.
There’s another reason companies go political: to build goodwill, particularly among millennial customers (and potential employees). Even if there’s short-term pain, the thinking goes, the haters will eventually jump to the next outrage. That was the consensus on Target’s bathroom announcement, even as it went viral. “Over the long term, this blows over,” one analyst predicted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Except that it hasn’t. In 2016 and 2017, Target’s sales and stock price slumped, and while there are plenty of potential causes, including competition from Amazon and Walmart, the bathroom announcement seems to be one of them. “It’s an emotional issue and clearly part of Target’s decline,” says Robert Passikoff, president of research firm Brand Keys. Twice a year, Brand Keys compiles its Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, which surveys more than 50,000 respondents to calculate the reputations of national brands. Anything close to 100 is a great score; under 70 suggests trouble ahead. Before the bathroom controversy, Target was at 84. In the weeks after, it plunged to 74. Two years later, the company is stuck at 75.
Which made the decision by Dick’s that much riskier.
A retailer like Dick’s is particularly vulnerable to consumer blowback for a simple reason: size. In 2017, Patagonia, which has taken some aggressive positions of its own, had 30 stores nationwide and revenue “approaching $ 1 billion,” CEO Rose Marcario said in a 2017 interview (the company declined to confirm that number); for REI it was 151 stores and $ 2.6 billion. During that same period, Dick’s had 716 stores, $ 8.6 billion in revenue, and a business model built on appealing to as many people as possible.
Richard Stack founded Dick’s in 1948 as a bait and tackle shop in Binghamton, New York. Yet in every way that matters, the company is his son Edward’s. Growing up, Edward helped around the store. He dreamed of law school until his father’s health forced him to come on full-time. He never left. When Richard retired in 1984, Edward took over running the business, and he expanded it into a retail empire.
It was a good time for that kind of ambition. The 1980s saw the rise of the so-called category killers—nationwide chains dominating a single product type (books, toys) by assembling a huge selection in a warehouse-size retail location (Barnes and Noble, Toys“R”Us). Dick’s capitalized on burgeoning interest in athletics and the outdoors, luring shoppers with everything from Ping-Pong equipment to Pelican kayaks.
Stack proved to be a sharp, hands-on CEO, personally scouting future Dick’s locations, which grew to be much larger than the competition’s. The company expanded quickly, from 12 locations in 1994, the year it moved its headquarters to suburban Pittsburgh, to 141 in 2002, the year it went public. Dick’s declined to grant Outside an interview for this story, with Stack or anyone else. But today everything about the retailer—from the huge selection to the wide aisles to the dad rock playing over the store speakers—suggests a desire to please a broad national audience.
If there’s one thing that’s lethal to category killers, of course, it’s a still larger selection—like, say, the internet’s. During the 2000s e-tail boom, however, Dick’s continued to expand, protected in part by steady gun sales. In 2013, a Barclays analyst told CNBC that he estimated the hunting and firearms category to account for as much as 10 percent of Dick’s total sales, with category-wide growth of 5 percent year over year from 2008 to 2012. On quarterly earnings calls, during which Stack spoke with investors and analysts, he discussed gun sales frequently and fluently: how they drove foot traffic, how they bolstered earnings, how they fluctuated depending on the news. After all, his business was growing in part due to firearms owners who worried that President Obama would push through new gun-control measures. They stockpiled firearms and ammunition—what Stack called panic buying.
Whatever consumers’ motives, guns were good for business, and in 2013 Dick’s unveiled a five-year plan that included $ 1.8 billion in capital expenditures. One goal was to open 55 new Field and Stream stores, focused on hunting, fishing, and camping, to take on existing retail chains like Cabela’s. (Field and Stream is not associated with the magazine of the same name.)
Since Stack controls more than half of Dick’s voting stock, it’s important to note that he is, or at least has been, a Republican. During the 2012 and 2014 elections, he donated more than a quarter of a million dollars to GOP candidates and to super PACs affiliated with Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell. Stack was rumored to be considering his own Republican bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
An exception to his rightward tilt came in 2016, when Stack cut a $ 300,000 check to a Democratic super PAC called House Majority. Perhaps the CEO’s politics were changing. Or perhaps he wanted to support his sister, Kim Myers, who was running for Congress as a Democrat; the following week, the PAC began supporting Myers’s campaign, ultimately spending $ 92,000.
Stack makes a surprising gun-control advocate. But it’s also important to note that, during 2017, his company struggled, its stock price plummeting from $ 54 to $ 28.74. There were many reasons for this, but a big one was that the entire gun industry was in trouble—mainly because the election of Donald Trump had curbed panic buying. The dozens of Field and Stream stores that Stack had opened by that time were looking like a terrible bet. “What’s been weighing on this industry has been the hunt business,” Stack said in a November 2017 earnings call.
Three months later, Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas. After Cruz’s name surfaced, someone at Dick’s searched internal databases to see if the shooter had purchased any guns from one of the retail chain’s stores. (Cruz had bought a shotgun at Dick’s but hadn’t used it in the shooting.) At company headquarters, Stack later told Good Morning America, everyone agreed that it was time to amend store policy.
Dick’s had tried this once before. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, it quietly announced that it would suspend sales of assault-style rifles. When those Field and Stream stores started opening the following year, they carried Bushmaster AR-15’s and other similar weapons. When reporters took notice, Dick’s declined to comment. The rifles remained in stores.
In 2018, however, Stack wanted to make bigger changes, including taking AR-15’s out of Field and Stream stores, and to announce the decision Dick’s launched a splashy media campaign, granting interviews to The New York Times and NBC Nightly News. After he wrapped Good Morning America, Stack hustled to the studios of CNN’s New Day. “Everybody talks about thoughts and prayers, and that’s great,” he said during his appearance. “But that doesn’t really do anything.” Throughout the morning, Stack stressed that Democrats and Republicans needed to work together. “We hope that it spurs a conversation,” Stack said.
That’s an interesting word, conversation, with its notes of civility and well-meaning compromise. Because America hasn’t been having conversations for a while now. Partisan identity—Republican versus Democrat, us versus them—has become the most powerful and distorting force in politics. Americans exhibit the same herd-like movements and yellow-card manners as a couple of youth-soccer teams in mesh pinnies (which Dick’s conveniently carries in red and blue).
Polling from nonpartisan outlets like Gallup and the Pew Research Center paints a clear picture: while Republicans are more tribal and more ideologically cocooned than Democrats, these traits warp both parties, probably because they warp all of humanity. Study after study shows that partisan identity can overpower evidence, ideas, and reason—and that being informed can actually make things worse. “The partisan divide is deeper than it used to be,” says Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
“It’s bigger than the issues. You know where you belong.” In other words, the specific policies don’t matter as long as they’re your team’s policies.
The gun issue is a good example. The NRA has spent decades cultivating passionate, single-issue voters—the panic buyers. And it has successfully linked ownership of firearms to Republican identity. “The NRA has framed gun rights really well,” says Scott Melzer, a sociologist at Michigan’s Albion College. “If you lose gun rights, then a tyrannical leftist government will tamp out every other right as well.”
That framing appears to have been effective. For 25 years, the Pew Research Center has been asking a simple question: Which do you think is more important—to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership? Republicans used to be divided on this, even during the debate around the Clinton-era band ban on assault-style rifles. (That ban expired in 2004.) As late as 2007, near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, the GOP remained basically split, 50 percent to 45, in favor of rights. After Obama was elected, though, the party went full NRA. The latest numbers, from 2017, show that 79 percent of Republicans believe gun rights matter more than gun control, and that same pro-gun slant crops up in other data. The number of Republicans who believe that having a gun in the home makes it safer has nearly doubled since 2000, even though gun ownership has barely budged. Republicans know that their team likes guns, so they like them, too—even as crime goes down and mass shootings go up.
Partisan identity can provide a boost in revenue to companies that are smaller or more focused than Dick’s. REI is a good example. Simmons Research, which studies consumer behavior, says that liberals are 82 percent more likely than the general public to shop at the co-op. When REI took a stand on the gun issue, it surely made more customers happy than mad.
That may not be the case with Dick’s. According to Simmons, conservatives are 15 percent more likely to shop there. But that number predates the backlash to the announcement. In the two months after Dick’s revealed its new gun policy, conservative media pounced. Fox News mentioned the company at least 36 times (sample chyron: “Firearm Fury”), and Breitbart ran at least 14 stories on it (“Dick’s Sporting Goods Enacts Corporate Gun Control”). When Dick’s said it would destroy its assault-style rifles instead of returning them to distributors, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch mocked the announcement in a video that received more than 700,000 views. When two under-21 employees quit Dick’s in protest, Fox News got them on the air. “I was standing up for my rights,” one of them told news anchor Neil Cavuto.
Republicans became obsessed with Dick’s in a way they never had with Walmart or other stores with identical policies. They began to see Dick’s the way they saw Target: as a member of the opposing team.
If that view holds, Dick’s will find itself in real financial trouble. It’s too soon to track in terms of revenue, especially since many gun sales happen in the fall, when hunting season kicks off. “We just don’t know yet,” says Christopher Svezia, an analyst with Wedbush Securities who has gun-industry expertise. Still, the retailer should be less worried about losing Republicans who buy guns than Republicans who buy golf shirts. In post-Parkland earnings calls, Stack has mentioned that gun-control supporters are making a point to shop at Dick’s. (“Buycotting,” it’s called.) But studies on partisan identity suggest that there’s far more energy on the side that feels aggrieved. When market-research firm Morning Consult did a survey of brands that broke with the NRA, it found that Republican anger easily eclipsed Democratic support.
Plenty of Democrats and Independents support Stack’s decision. “Dick’s has been amazing,” says Fred Guttenberg. “They built commonsense gun safety into their business model, and it didn’t trample anyone’s Second Amendment rights.” On social media, liberals crowed as the company’s stock price crept up a few dollars this year, to about $ 38.
Yet a key reason why Dick’s has done better is the Trump tax cut, which it used not to raise wages but to nearly sextuple its share buybacks, funneling cash to investors. “They increased their buybacks more than average,” says Howard Silverblatt, an analyst at S&P, “and buybacks support the stock.”
Neither the right nor the left can count on any company to put politics above profit, not over the long term. Dick’s wasn’t the only one to go quiet after coming out for gun control. REI also declined to talk to Outside. (Yeti supplied a statement about being “unwavering in our commitment to the Constitution and its Second Amendment.”) The pattern of a strong statement followed by selective silence characterizes a lot of corporate activism. Even Target, as The Wall Street Journal reported last year, decided to once again avoid publicizing its position on social issues. Go back to REI’s Vista statement, the one about companies being “willing to lead,” and you’ll see that it promises not a permanent break but one to “assess how Vista proceeds.” How is REI proceeding? The company wouldn’t say.
In April, Dick’s hired the D.C. firm Glover Park Group to lobby for gun control—another story that fired up the conservative media. But in the months since, it has paid that firm less than $ 10,000. By contrast, the company has spent nearly $ 200,000 lobbying for tax reform since 2017.
It seems unlikely that Stack will reverse Dick’s new gun policy—not after meeting with parents like Guttenberg and declaring on TV that assault-style rifles will “never” return to his stores. But it’s hard to gauge how committed he is to fighting for change, given how quiet he’s been and how little he’s spent on the effort. Did Stack break with the Republican party in 2016, and does the new policy represent his sincere beliefs? Or was the CEO looking for a way to exit the gun business and its boom-bust cycles? Was Dick’s planning another gun-control push when it hired that lobbying firm in April? Or has the backlash been worse than expected, pushing the company into its current silence as it waits for conservative customers to forget?
The answer to all these may be yes. But that leaves one last question: How can you truly be part of the conversation if you’ll only speak on your own terms?
Craig Fehrman (@craigfehrman) lives in Bloomington, Indiana. This is his first feature for Outside.