Free­dom to Bear Arms?

In this ex­cerpt from his new book, Ed Stack of DICK’S Sport­ing Goods speaks out about his de­ci­sion to limit sales of as­sault weapons

Newsweek - - CONTENT - by ED STACK Illustrati­on by Alex Fine

Ed Stack of DICK’S Sport­ing Goods speaks out about his de­ci­sion to limit sales of as­sault weapons.

Chair­man and CEO of DICK’S Sport­ing Goods Stores Ed Stack grew a small fam­ily busi­ness from two store­fronts into the largest sport­ing goods re­tailer in the coun­try with over $9 bil­lion in sales and close to 800 lo­ca­tions—and he did so with a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to the com­mu­ni­ties he serves. In the wake of ris­ing gun vi­o­lence and school shoot­ings in the United States, Stack made a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions cur­tail­ing firearms sales at his stores, which cul­mi­nated in the wake of the 2018 Park­land, Florida, school shoot­ing, when he com­pletely stopped sell­ing as­sault-style ri­fles and raised the age to 21 for any firearms pur­chases. Since then, he has fur­ther lim­ited firearms sales and spo­ken out on be­half of more re­stric­tive gun laws—de­spite vo­cal crit­i­cism and boy­cotts from many of his for­merly loyal cus­tomers—a de­ci­sion he de­scribes in the fol­low­ing ex­cerpt from his re­cently pub­lished book, It’s How We Play the Game.

In the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School shoot­ing in Park­land, Florida, my wife Donna and I found our­selves feel­ing, at some level, a cer­tain de­gree of guilt—one we shared with Amer­ica’s other po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate lead­ers. All of us, an en­tire gen­er­a­tion, had shirked our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. We were fail­ing the na­tion’s chil­dren. We had to do some­thing. That week­end, I wrote a first draft of a po­si­tion pa­per for Dick’s Sport­ing Goods. It opened by say­ing how much re­spect we had for the young peo­ple be­hind the “Never Again” drive, and that our thoughts and prayers were with “so many of you that have lost loved ones, friends and men­tors.” But thoughts and prayers weren’t enough, I wrote. “We need to take ac­tion to ad­dress this prob­lem.”

I then of­fered a list of rec­om­men­da­tions. Some were vague—the first item on the list was “re­vi­sion of gun laws,” but oth­ers were aimed at spe­cific tar­gets: A “ban on as­sault-style weapons.” A change in laws na­tion­wide “to in­clude 21 as the re­quired age for buy­ing guns.” A ban on the bump stock, which mod­i­fies semi-au­to­matic guns to al­low them to fire their rounds in rapid suc­ces­sion. A na­tion­wide wait­ing pe­riod for gun sales, dur­ing which a buyer’s so­cial me­dia posts, as well as his or her crim­i­nal record, would be checked.

“I en­cour­age our law­mak­ers to come to­gether to find a so­lu­tion to this prob­lem,” I wrote. “The coun­try needs for you to put par­ti­san pol­i­tics aside and thor­oughly dis­cuss and pass a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion. We do not want to hear par­ti­san dis­course. This is too im­por­tant.”

I was in emo­tional tur­moil when I wrote one of the fi­nal points I made in the doc­u­ment: “Un­til we are con­fi­dent there are checks and bal­ances that en­sure we are not go­ing to sell a gun to some­one who plans to walk out of our store and kill, we are sus­pend­ing the sale of guns.”

Mon­day morn­ing, back in Pitts­burgh, we con­vened a meet­ing of the lead­er­ship team. I said, “We have to take a stand. And we can ac­tu­ally do some­thing about it—

a small thing, maybe, but it’s a start. And we should.” I had the draft with me and started to read it—and half­way through, I got so choked up that I couldn’t speak. Our chief of staff, Ami Galani, took the pa­per from my hand and read the rest of it.

All 10 peo­ple in the room fa­vored most of the points I’d made. Just one caused con­cern—sus­pend­ing the sale of guns. The prob­lem, they pointed out, wasn’t all guns—it was spe­cific weapons. And what kind of im­pact would such a move have on the bot­tom line? I didn’t care about that sec­ond point and said so. “Well, okay, CFO Lee Belit­sky said, "but I’m just go­ing to run some num­bers so we have them. We’re a pub­lic com­pany, and the first thing ev­ery­one will want to know is how it will af­fect rev­enue and earn­ings.".

The con­ver­sa­tion turned to dis­cussing in greater de­tail just how ex­ten­sive this sus­pen­sion of sales should be. As a group we found it a tough ques­tion to an­swer fully. Here was the is­sue: the mar­gin rate on guns was not great, but hunters bought not only guns, they also bought a host of other hunt­ing prod­ucts that are very prof­itable. All told, our hunt­ing and out­door busi­ness ap­proached $1 bil­lion in sales per year. Beyond that, hunt­ing had been a main­stay of Dick’s busi­ness since the com­pany’s ear­li­est days. Did it make sense to need­lessly alien­ate loyal, law-abid­ing Dick’s cus­tomers who bought shot­guns and deer ri­fles and who used them for le­git­i­mate sport?

Even­tu­ally, we reached a con­sen­sus that we might have more im­pact if we nar­rowed our fo­cus down to the ac­tual source of trou­ble—the guns fa­vored by mass shoot­ers. Which is to say, AR-15S and sim­i­lar ri­fles, along with the ac­ces­sories that went with them. You might think that we wouldn’t have much at stake by pulling just the as­sault-style ri­fles. But guns are such a po­lar­iz­ing is­sue that we stood to lose a lot of cus­tomers. The peo­ple we’d anger didn’t just buy firearms from us. They bought base­ball gloves, run­ning shoes and sports­wear for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. We es­ti­mated that the dam­age would amount to well over a quarter-bil­lion dol­lars, at a min­i­mum.

After much dis­cus­sion, we fig­ured we could off­set the po­ten­tial loss by boost­ing sales in other cat­e­gories. Even if we fell short, I was okay with it. The choice seemed plain. If those kids from Park­land could muster up the courage to take their fight to the coun­try, we had to be brave enough to make this move.

We made ar­range­ments to con­sult with the board of di­rec­tors. There was push­back, but ul­ti­mately, the board as a whole sup­ported us, though not with­out ques­tions. The board shares our fidu­ciary duty to our share­hold­ers, and they wanted re­as­sur­ance that we’d thought this through. Sat­is­fied that we had, they gave us the green light. Our lead­er­ship team, along with our out­side pub­lic re­la­tions con­sul­tants, ar­gued that if we wanted to have the great­est pos­si­ble im­pact with our an­nounce­ment—if we wanted to truly in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion—we might want to go big­ger than a press re­lease. This is a big deal, they said. This de­serves some­thing more. So we chose to book an in­ter­view with one of the morn­ing news shows. So it was that at 7:08 a.m. on Wed­nes­day, Fe­bru­ary 28—two weeks after the shoot­ing—i sat with Ge­orge Stephanopo­u­los on the Good Morn­ing Amer­ica set. By sheer co­in­ci­dence, that was also the morn­ing

“Un­til we are con­fi­dent there are checks and bal­ances that en­sure we are not go­ing to sell a gun to some­one who plans to walk out of our store and kill, we are sus­pend­ing the sale of guns.”

that classes re­sumed at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School.

I told him how sad­dened we’d been by the at­tack, that we’d felt com­pelled to take ac­tion in re­sponse. We dis­cussed the fact that the shooter had bought a shot­gun from us even though he hadn’t used it in the at­tack. That had been part of our im­pe­tus for tak­ing the as­sault-style ri­fles off the shelves, I ex­plained: “The sys­tems that are in place across the board just aren’t ef­fec­tive enough to keep us from sell­ing some­one like that a gun.”

Stephanopo­u­los asked me, “Any re­grets at all about not tak­ing a move like this sooner? After Newtown, after Sandy Hook, you an­nounced a tem­po­rary sus­pen­sion of as­sault weapons sales but then came back to sell­ing.”

I an­swered, “We did. We said we were go­ing to tem­po­rar­ily take them out of the Dick’s stores, the Dick’s Sport­ing Goods stores.

We never put them back in the Dick’s stores. And then, in 2013, we de­vel­oped a chain, Field & Stream, which was a full-on hunt­ing and outdoors store. And we put them in those stores. But based on what’s hap­pened, and look­ing at those kids, and those par­ents, it moved us all unimag­in­ably.” I was fight­ing, here, to keep my voice from crack­ing. “And to think about the loss and the grief that those kids and those par­ents had, we said we need to do some­thing, and we’re tak­ing these guns out of all of our stores, per­ma­nently.”

“So yeah, no chance you’re go­ing to re­verse this?” Stephanopo­u­los asked then, and my re­ply was, “Never.”

“Are you ready for the back­lash?” he asked.

“We are,” I told him. “We know that this isn’t go­ing to make ev­ery­one happy.”

Stephanopo­u­los changed tacks. “You want Congress to act as well.”

“We do,” I said. “We hope that they’ll act and pull some­thing to­gether. We don’t want to see the par­ti­san pol­i­tics, where one side es­pouses their po­si­tion, the other side es­pouses their po­si­tion, and they ac­tu­ally never do any­thing.”

At the end, Stephanopo­u­los nod­ded. “It’s a big move,” he said. I walked out of the stu­dio, re­lieved that it was over. Ex­cept it wasn’t.

We were re­ceiv­ing thou­sands of let­ters. Many peo­ple were writ­ing to thank us. Some said they’d never shopped at a Dick’s store be­fore but would now. There were so many warm, emo­tional com­ments from par­ents thank­ing us for mak­ing the world safer for their kids that I got choked up. I told my ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant to in­stead read me the nasty ones, so that I could get ahold of my emo­tions.

And oh, there were so many to choose from.

Soon after, about 65 of our own em­ploy­ees quit right away in protest, and more fol­lowed in later weeks, peo­ple up and down the or­ga­ni­za­tion. We have a cross-sec­tion of the coun­try work­ing with us, so it didn’t sur­prise me that some were up­set with us. But the neg­a­tive back­lash, hot as it was, was over­whelmed by the pos­i­tive re­sponse to our de­ci­sion. Peo­ple came into our stores with donuts, piz­zas and flow­ers for the staff. We got thou­sands of emails and let­ters. The man­ager of our store clos­est to Park­land emailed us the day after my TV ap­pear­ances. “Be­fore yes­ter­day, my com­mu­nity con­tin­ued to strug­gle with heal­ing,” he wrote. “That be­gan to change at 7:15 a.m. yes­ter­day. Thus far I have re­ceived 42 phone calls of sup­port and 17 walk-ins that wanted to speak di­rectly with the store man­ager.”

We seemed to have started a shift. And mo­men­tum seemed to be build­ing to­ward some­thing good.

About 65 of our own em­ploy­ees quit right away in protest, and more fol­lowed in later weeks.

Q: What com­mu­nity is­sues are you pas­sion­ate about?

A: I wrote It’s How We Play The Game to high­light two is­sues. The first is youth sports. Na­tional fund­ing for youth sports has been cut dra­mat­i­cally; to­day 24% of pub­lic schools do not of­fer school sports pro­grams. Sports play a vi­tal role in teach­ing our chil­dren fun­da­men­tal val­ues and are a place where kids find their con­fi­dence, build friend­ships, gain men­tors and feel like they be­long. We started an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Sports Mat­ter to in­spire and en­able youth par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports.

The sec­ond is our jour­ney around gun pol­icy. DICK’S’ has a his­tory with guns that dates back to our early days. The evo­lu­tion of that story and how we made gun pol­icy de­ci­sions that re­moved guns from our shelves and ad­vo­cated for change are im­por­tant, too.

Q: You took all guns and am­mu­ni­tion off the shelves of DICK’S tem­po­rar­ily after the 9/11 at­tacks; and in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shoot­ing in Newtown, Con­necti­cut, you suspended sell­ing as­sault-style weapons. After the 2018 Park­land, Florida, shoot­ing you com­pletely re­moved as­sault-style weapons from all stores per­ma­nently. What made this dif­fer­ent? How has your think­ing evolved?

A: The ter­ri­ble tragedy at Park­land had a pro­found im­pact on those stu­dents, their fam­i­lies, our na­tion and me per­son­ally. It led us to make the de­ci­sion to re­move as­sault-style ri­fles from our Field & Stream stores (they had al­ready been re­moved from our DICK’S stores), and to stop sell­ing high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines and firearms to peo­ple un­der the age of 21. We were in­spired to make those de­ci­sions by the brave sur­vivors of Park­land.

Q: Ini­tially, you took a big fi­nan­cial hit by tak­ing as­sault ri­fles off your shelves. You even de­stroyed $5 mil­lion worth of in­ven­tory rather than re­turn the stock to your sup­pli­ers. Did you con­sult with your board be­fore do­ing this? What was their re­ac­tion?

A: We have an ac­tive board that’s very hands-on and in­volved in the busi­ness. As we of­ten do when we have an ur­gent mat­ter to dis­cuss, we set up a tele­phonic board meet­ing to dis­cuss the changes we wanted to make after Park­land. The board sup­ported us, though not with­out ques­tions about the ef­fects of our plan on sales and earn­ings. Sat­is­fied with our an­swers, they gave us the go ahead.

More than a year later, if some­body said, “you can have a do-over here,” we’d do it ex­actly the same way and not even think twice.

Q: You own guns your­self but are out­spo­ken on the need for stricter gun laws. What do you pro­pose?

A: Let me start by say­ing that I sup­port the Sec­ond Amend­ment, and as I’ve said, there are ar­eas where we—as a coun­try—can and should do bet­ter. In 2018, we im­plored our elected of­fi­cials to en­act com­mon-sense gun reform and reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing re­new­ing the as­sault-style firearms ban, rais­ing the min­i­mum age to pur­chase firearms to 21, clos­ing back­ground check loop­holes and in­sti­tut­ing back­ground checks for all gun sales.

A bill that ad­dressed back­ground checks passed in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives ear­lier this year. It’s sit­ting on Mitch Mccon­nell’s desk, and I hope he cares enough about what a ma­jor­ity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple want to bring it to vote on the floor of the Se­nate.

Q: Do you have any ad­vice for other CEOS deal­ing with con­tro­ver­sial is­sues?

A: Don’t shy away from con­tro­versy, es­pe­cially if you have an ex­per­tise. We felt that we, as a ma­jor firearms dealer, rec­og­nized that the coun­try’s gun laws had too many in­con­sis­ten­cies, and we should stand up and say so. Other busi­nesses need to make their own de­ci­sions as to what is best for their share­hold­ers, em­ploy­ees, cus­tomers and com­mu­ni­ties.

Q: Be­sides DICK’S, where do you shop?

A: I reg­u­larly visit a lot of dif­fer­ent stores to see what they’re do­ing and what we can learn from them. Some of the stores I en­joy vis­it­ing are Ap­ple, Nord­strom, and Weg­mans gro­cery store in up­state New York where I worked when in col­lege. Smaller out­fits of­ten pop up to meet a con­sumer de­mand that’s not be­ing met by the big guy in the mar­ket. I’ve found that too many com­pa­nies fail to take the com­pe­ti­tion se­ri­ously—right up to the mo­ment where the lit­tle guy grows big enough to do them se­ri­ous harm.

THEN AND NOW Op­po­site page from top: Founder Dick Stack in 1956 WITH A DIS­PLAY OF HUNT­ING RI­FLES; a cus­tomer gun shop­ping at Dick's Sport­ing Goods in 2012, be­fore CEO Ed Stack (this page) made the de­ci­sion to stop sell­ing as­sault-style RI­FLES LATER THAT YEAR.

NEVER AGAIN Top: Mourn­ers at a can­dle­light vigil for the vic­tims of the Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School shoot­ing. Be­low: A bump stock de­vice, which mod­i­fies semi-au­to­matic guns to al­low them to fire their rounds more quickly, dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing the po­ten­tial for ca­su­al­ties in an at­tack..

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