Why you should care

Most Americans support stronger gun controls, but state and federal laws have only gotten more lax. Cities are looking to do an end run around legislative impasse.

The conundrum has riddled our body politic for years: Most Americans support stricter gun control , but legislation doesn’t pass. We have yet to see universal background checks, despite their bipartisan appeal, and restoration of the assault weapons ban remains a pipe dream.

That’s why some gun reform proponents have set their sights on a new target: the fair-trade gun. The idea is to let the market do what lawmakers can’t or won’t. Police departments purchase a significant number of guns, and so, the thinking goes, why not leverage that buying power to influence the $15 billion gun industry?

Social change often starts with governments using the power of their purse…

It’s not a new idea, but the past few months have seen serious municipal traction. In December, Jersey City, N.J., issued a weapons procurement bid that asks applicants whether they manufacture or sell assault weapons, what they do to fight gun trafficking and what their background check policies are, among other things. Faith-based groups in metro New York are urging their leaders to do the same. Last month, 17 South Florida mayors and Miami-Dade County backed Arms With Ethics, a group that urges municipalities to ask suppliers questions like how they prevent straw sales.

It’s a logical strategy, says Casey Woods, who founded Arms With Ethics. “Local governments have influence they have not yet used, and local communities have to bear the brunt of the gun violence crisis.”

Even former mayors are getting into the game: Michael Bloomberg , of New York, is lobbying private business to play a role. Some tech companies are taking steps: Facebook this month announced it would delete illegal postings about gun sales and warn users against them; its subsidiary, Instagram, said it would no longer allow postings of illegal guns on its platform.

Bloomberg at podium with guns on table next to him

At an August 9, 2013 press conference, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg discusses a gun bust in which city officials collected more than 250 illegal firearms.

”Social change often starts with governments using the power of their purse,” says Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. The group, based in Washington, D.C., last year issued a primer on the “countermarketing” approach to gun control, including guidelines for community groups who want local leaders to use their buying power to influence the industry.

In some 40 states, pre-emption laws prohibit municipalities from regulating or restricting gun purchases.

There is precedent for market-based change in things like minority hiring and recycling practices. The advantage: They affect a “broad swatch of the population without necessarily going and saying you must do X, Y or Z,” says Horwitz.

Gun purchases by municipal police departments make up a small but significant portion of overall sales; it’s not known exactly how much, but estimates range from 5 to 15 percent. Regardless, says Horwitz, police gun purchases exercise outsized brand influence.

For all elegance of the idea, execution will be rough. By press time, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the largest force in the municipal gun-control movement, had not staked out an official position on such initiatives. And the organized gun-owner lobby spearheaded by the National Rifle Association stands as ready to scuttle consumer initiatives as surgeon general nominations .

In a way, the NRA started years ago, by lobbying state legislatures to enact ”pre-emption laws.” In some 40 states, pre-emption laws prohibit municipalities from regulating or restricting gun purchases. Penalties range from the light hand slap to, in Florida, ejection from office. In other words, a South Florida mayor judged to “regulate” the gun industry would lose city hall.

Gun ownership and a desire to reduce gun violence can coexist.

That’s a significant disincentive for mayors to back countermarketing measures. But Woods, of the South Florida group Arms With Ethics, says that proposed measures are essentially requests for information, not attempts to regulate.

“What we’re trying to do is to give them the tools to be informed consumers, by letting them know which companies are investing more to keep us safe,” she says.

Casey speaking with Arms With Ethics sign behind her

Casey Woods

Woods is a mother of three and a former Miami Herald reporter who covered local news, including crime. She started Arms Without Ethics a year ago, and since then, 17 mayors have signed on, some of them gun owners themselves. Gun ownership and a desire to reduce gun violence can coexist, Woods maintains. “Down here in South Florida, you have cities that are dealing with gun violence every day, and even the more conservative mayors are looking for a way to deal with it,” she says.

The NRA did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.

To be sure, gun-control initiatives that harness the power of the market are not new. In 2008, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest gun retailer, toughened its gun sales policies in response to advocacy from Mayors Against Illegal Guns. It added heightened inventory controls and video cameras to document points of sale.

Since 2000, Smith & Wesson has stayed far away from gun reform, and its sales have shot up five times over.

Wal-Mart, Facebook and Instagram haven’t suffered backlashes or boycotts — probably because their outsized market power lets them set terms. But history suggests market initiatives won’t be easy. Back in 2000, the Clinton administration persuaded storied gun maker Smith & Wesson to adopt new design standards like magazine-size limits, as well as sales and distribution restrictions.

The National Rifle Association called for a boycott. Sales plummeted 40 percent . The company backed away from the agreement, but not before it had weakened to the point that it could be acquired at a bargain basement price. Since then, the company has stayed far away from gun reform, and its sales have shot up five times over.

Just this month, a California arms store that tried to sell the nation’s first ”smart gun” got slammed by gun-rights advocates and quickly retreated. Smart guns discharge only when an accompanying smart watch is nearby. The retailer, Oak Tree, disowned their entire foray into smart guns, even though the Washington Post had amply documented it.

Whether municipalities see more success than Oak Tree is an open question. Regardless, some gun-control supporters insist consumers have an important lever in changing the industry. “There are a lot of gun owners that might be interested in a fair-trade concept,” says Horwitz. “And the best thing would be for gun purchasers to be asking these questions.”

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