Bioethics Forum Essay
Businesses, Guns, and Human Rights
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Tragically, from January 1 to March 21, 2018, there were 3,088 gun-related deaths and 5,355 gun-related injuries in the United States. Gun violence is a public health problem. But it’s also a human rights problem. It is time to turn to international human rights and moral and social norms, which ground obligations for individuals and business organizations to limit gun ownership.
Human rights are entitlements that all people have by virtue of their humanity. Gun violence puts a number of human rights at risk. Most obviously, it threatens Article 6 of the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Every human being has the inherent right to life.” Studies show that the mere presence of guns increases the probability of crime, suicide, and accidents.
Ethics asks us to promote the good and to prevent harm to others, especially when we can do so with little inconvenience to ourselves. Individuals are not alone in having moral responsibilities. In the eyes of the law, corporations are persons; they also have moral responsibilities. Businesses that manufacture guns have a moral responsibility to ensure that their products are not used in acts of violence. Businesses are also subject to the far more demanding obligations of international human rights.
The human rights responsibilities of businesses were carefully articulated in the U. N.’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, which states, “Business enterprises should respect human rights. . . . [T]hey should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.” Put differently, businesses are responsible for ensuring that their activities do not violate human rights. This responsibility includes a company’s direct violations as well as those of organizations with which it is affiliated, such as its supply chains.
Importantly, the Guiding Principles requires companies to anticipate their human rights impacts and to remedy any violation. Once organizations know that they are at risk of violating human rights, they must take steps to avoid the violation. If companies wait for overwhelming evidence that their activities will violate human rights, they will have failed to meet their due diligence responsibilities to protect and respect human rights. Too little, too late.
In the wake of the Parkland mass shooting, some businesses are assuming greater responsibility for their impact on human rights. National Car Rental, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent A Car, and Delta Air Lines have ended (at least for now) the discounts they extended to members of the National Rifle Association. Some stores have not only refused to sell guns and ammunition but also refused to sell the water bottles and helmets that are produced by companies affiliated with gun manufacturers. Their actions not only diminish their complicity in gun violence but also convey a message to the community about their responsibilities to stakeholders.
Soon after the Parkland shooting, more than 17,000 Americans signed an online petition asking Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) to stop selling brands associated with Vista Outdoor, a company worth about $3 billion, much of whose business comes from the sale of guns and ammunition—including assault weapons of the sort used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In addition to firearms, Vista’s portfolio includes CamelBak (water bottles), Bell (helmets), and Giro (helmets, goggles, and athletic shoes)—products for people who love the outdoors. On March 1, REI placed a hold on its orders of Vista products. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it had stopped selling AR-15-style weapons and raised the age requirement to purchase any gun to 21. Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s, said that the company was “going to take a stand and step up and tell people our view and, hopefully, bring people along into the conversation.” Soon after, Walmart joined Dick’s in raising the age requirement on all firearm sales. (Walmart hasn’t sold high-powered rifles like the AR-15 since 2015.)
In Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) stopped selling Vista products. MEC was the subject of a Change.org petition with 54,129 supporters that stated, “Given the recent massacre of high school students in Parkland, Florida, MEC is facing an urgent ethical obligation: to act in accordance with its ‘Mission and Values’ and immediately stop selling brands owned by Vista Outdoor.”
To be viable, companies need legal and social legitimacy. Complicity in the violation of human rights and social norms risks their social license to operate. According to John Ruggie, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights from 2005 to 2011, when companies violate human rights, they can trigger a social backlash, which can in turn result in the loss of their social license to operate.
Today, gun violence in the U.S. has triggered a backlash against the N.R.A. and companies that manufacture guns and the brands affiliated with them. From the perspective of securing and maintaining social legitimacy, it doesn’t matter if the Second Amendment protects gun ownership. What matters is if the community is willing to extend a social license to operate to companies that produce firearms. Many Americans are reluctant to do so. Other Americans continue to support gun ownership, come what may.
At this time neither companies nor the communities on which they rely for their social license to operate may recognize that human rights motivate their actions. But people don’t need to understand that their activism is motivated by human rights in order for those rights and obligations to exist, or to be the driving force behind their actions. Still, the more we know about our human rights and responsibilities the more likely we can protect, respect, and fulfill them. Norm change can resemble a bandwagon in which increasing numbers of people gradually adopt a new norm as the social costs of the new and old norms shift. Times may be changing.
As social norms change, urged on by ethics, business, and human rights, public health and law will be empowered to assume their critical role in protecting the public’s health from gun violence. Very often ethics and business collide. With respect to gun violence, enterprises together with ethics and international human rights are leading the way to a healthier America.
The responsibility to respect human rights and to restore human dignity exists independently of the government’s willingness to fulfill its human rights obligations. There is no dignity in the senseless and violent deaths of 17 people. Nor was there dignity for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as they walked in single file from school, terrified for their safety and grieving the loss. There is of course, great dignity in the March For Our Lives march in Washington, D.C., on March 24 as the country comes together in solidarity to protect the human rights to life and to health, and to be free from gun violence.
Patricia Illingworth, JD, PhD, is a professor at Northeastern University and a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.