How Dick’s Gun-Owning CEO Became the Corporate Face of Gun Control

Mony
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“Every time there’s a shooting, the first thing that we do is we go through all the records to find out who the shooter was, and did they buy the gun from us,” said Dick’s Chief Executive

Edward Stack.

“It really puts a pit in our stomach.”

The YouTube shooter hadn’t purchased any firearms at Dick’s, Mr. Stack said. But a similar search in February after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting uncovered that the alleged gunman had bought a weapon from the national chain, though it wasn’t used in the shooting.

For Mr. Stack, 63 years old, the exercise is part of the new reality of being in the gun business. It contributed to his decision to tighten Dick’s policy in the wake of the Parkland attack, which left 17 dead and more than a dozen injured. The retailer halted sales of any firearms to people under 21 at all of its 845 Dick’s and Field Stream stores, and stopped selling assault-style weapons at Field Stream. The company had already ended sales of assault-style weapons at its flagship Dick’s stores.  

With that decision, which was quickly followed by similar moves from

Walmart
Inc.

and

Kroger
Co.

, Mr. Stack emerged as the corporate face of the fight for stricter gun controls.

In the five weeks since, he said he has met with families of those affected by the Parkland shooting, lobbied lawmakers in Washington and received phone calls and emails from thousands of customers on all sides of the issue.

It’s too soon to say if Dick’s new policy will affect sales at the chain over the long term. But the company said last month that the decision had hurt traffic and retail sales, exacerbating headwinds to its hunting and gun business. While the company doesn’t break out firearms sales, its entire hunting category comprised roughly $1 billion of Dick’s $8.6 billion in revenue last year.

Mr. Stack said the private sector can be a force for change in a debate that so far hasn’t led to significant legislation.

“In order to really spur this conversation,” he said, it requires “somebody who understands this.” He believes that Dick’s, as a gun seller, can offer a distinct perspective from traditional participants in the debate, advocates for victims of gun violence and gun owners who want to preserve the status quo. “Something needs to change.”

A gun owner himself, Mr. Stack said he wants to see the changes instituted at Dick’s and Field Stream stores become law: an outright ban on assault-style weapons, no sales of high-capacity magazines and an increase in the minimum gun-buying age to 21.

So far, however, the prospects for movement in Washington aren’t good, Mr. Stack said. “I don’t think there’s going to be real meaningful change from what I’ve seen on the Hill,” he said—at least in the short term. He declined to name which members of Congress he has met with. A spokeswoman for survivors of the Parkland school shooting confirmed he visited with families in Florida in recent weeks.

One issue the CEO said he was surprised to encounter in recent weeks was what he described as “inconsistencies” in the understanding of current gun laws. For instance, some didn’t know that individuals placed on terror watch lists, like the No-Fly List, aren’t prohibited from possessing firearms or explosives under federal law.

Despite its recent moves, Dick’s has been subject to criticism from advocates of tighter gun controls. On Thursday, the world’s largest money manager, BlackRock Inc., said Dick’s was among the retailers that sell guns that will be ruled out of some of its current and planned exchange-traded funds.

Mr. Stack became president and CEO of his father’s then-two-store business in 1984 and expanded it into a nationwide chain. He remains the controlling shareholder, an ownership structure that he said gives the company an advantage when it comes to taking a social stance.

Dick’s February decision to change its gun sales policy wasn’t the first such stance taken by the company. It removed assault-style weapons from Dick’s shelves after the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 students and adults dead.

Back then, Dick’s simply took the guns off the shelves without a formal announcement, Mr. Stack said. This time, the company issued a statement and the CEO appeared on “Good Morning America.”

To come to the decision, Mr. Stack consulted with his upper management and board. One group he didn’t consult: Vendors.

“We didn’t talk to anybody,” he said. “They’re not terribly happy, and I understand that. But I just think there can be rules and regulations that can be modified to keep everyone safe.”

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