After Newton shooting, business leaders are changing their tune on guns—but for how long?

December 18, 2012

In the latest sign that the gun control debate is having an impact following the horrific rampage Friday in Newtown, Conn., three major businesses are making notable changes amid the tragedy.

Perhaps most significantly, Cerberus, the secretive private equity firm, announced Tuesday that it would immediately begin the process of trying to sell its stake in the Freedom Group, a company that manufactures the Bushmaster firearm brand, which was used in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. “It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” the firm said in a news release. “It is not our role to take positions, or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate. … There are, however, actions that we as a firm can take.”

The move to sell its Freedom Group investment comes in the wake of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (which has $751 million invested with Cerberus) saying it would review its relationship with Cerberus following the shooting. Bloomberg is also reporting that the father of Cerberus founder Stephen Feinberg lives in Newtown.

But Cerberus is not the only one. Wal-Mart pulled the .223-calibre Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle from its Web site Monday, reportedly about the same time a story in the Nation about Wal-Mart’s role in selling guns was to be published. Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled all guns from the shelves of its store closest to Newtown, Conn., and is suspending the sale of certain semiautomatic weapons from its stores nationally. It is not clear how long the suspension will last.

The decisions may be nothing more than public relations moves. Who wants to be associated with selling the same gun that massacred small children? These were likely not hard decisions for the business leaders who made them. Pulling guns from your shelves or your Web site may hurt sales temporarily, but being identified in any way with a rampage this scarring to the national conscience puts the right answer in stark relief.

What will be a much more difficult call for these managers is what to do once the story recedes in the minds of Americans and fails to occupy the headlines on a daily basis. Will Dick’s or Wal-Mart add back the guns to their shelves and their sites if regulations on assault weapons don’t change? Will either store choose to further toughen its own gun policies? And what will Cerberus do the next time it has an opportunity to buy up a gun company at a rock-bottom price?

Leadership on this issue isn’t just about what people in charge do in the wake of a tragedy. It’s about the decisions company leaders make for years to come, long after the spotlight is gone.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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