In 2014, Politifact analyzed some claims made by Jon Stewart. Those claims were about the idea that President Lincoln, in trying to avoid strife around the slave issue, attempted to buy slaves in order to free them.
As Politifact noted, “Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, wrote that this resolution was Lincoln’s second attempt to pay slave owners to free their slaves. A year earlier, he had tried to get Delaware to pass a bill that would have cleared the way for Washington to spend $719,200 to free the state’s entire slave population, about 1,800 at that time. The bill failed in the Delaware Legislature.”
While, in the same article, Columbia University historian Eric Foner was quoted as saying that “during the first two years of the war Lincoln repeatedly offered ‘compensated emancipation’ to the border slave states that remained in the Union and any Confederate states interested”.
Now, these facts are consistent with the many things that Abolitionists did to try to protest and fight the institution of American Slavery. Many Abolitionists bought slaves with only one intent: to free them. Frances Wright set up the Nashoba Community. She bought 2,000 acres of land and some slaves from Andrew Jackson in Memphis, Tennessee. The intent was to set up a co-operative labor system where the slaves could basically work off their price of purchase and then they would be set free. While, Nashoba eventually failed, it was one of many attempts to buy slaves for their freedom.
This attempt to purchase slaves in order to provide their freedom was an interesting attempt to make policy change through economic efforts. In my mind, it also provides a kernel of an idea of how to make political change. If you don’t like an outcome, put your money where your mouth is. Tesla, Bodyshop and Whole Foods are companies that were started to do one this very thing: make change through the power of the purse.
So why couldn’t American Gun Control Advocates do the same? I think they can and there are two ways to do this. Firstly, Gun Control Advocates could start an “ethical” gun company. This might sound ridiculous but look at Heckler & Koch. It was a company that wanted to clean up its image and re-brand itself. So when German anti-gun activists popped-up at one of their Annual General Meetings, the famous German gun firm embraced their long-time foes. Now “Heckler & Koch promises only to deal with NATO countries, NATO-equivalent nations — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Switzerland — and countries with passing marks on Transparency International’s corruption index and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy test.” (Ethical gun dealer? Machine-gun giant Heckler & Koch will no longer sell in ‘crisis regions’, by Kyle Swenson, Washington Post, September 21, 2017). Could an American gun company, through a strong social conscious brand, encourage market oriented change? It could.
Dyson has a good business selling expensive vacuum cleaners because they promise that their vacuum cleaners are the best. Instead of making lower quality, lower costs products as their competitors do, Dyson explains that their products are not cheap because they are engineered to be better. Imagine if an American gun company built their brand around being the only company to never be involved in a “mass-death” incident. Now this would be difficult to do, for few companies take responsibility of their products once they leave their premises. However, this mythical company could take steps like buying back guns if someone could no longer care for them or adopting series of measures including implementing a better and deeper background check than the current government system.
This mythical company could promise to pay out a minimum amount of money should their guns be used in a crime. While, this would mean that this socially conscious American gun company would have to limit their distribution and network to ensure that their guns didn’t end up in the wrong hands, other successful American companies – like Ten Thousand Villages, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Apple and Google – have managed to do the same and been successful at it. However, this is only one of two sides of the “economic action” argument.
The other side of this political model would be inspired directly by Abolitionists. For, if one cannot create a competitor to change the market conditions, one could just buy out the existing players like Ruger (NYSE: RGR) or Outdoor Brands Corp, previously known as Smith & Wesson Holding Corp (NASDAQ: AOBC). This plan would be more ambitious and more exciting because it would ask people to put their money where their mouth is. That is always a difficult task; but it is not nearly impossible. Depending on the trading day, Outdoor Brands Corp is worth about $850 Million USD; while Ruger has a value of just under a Billion USD.
A billion dollars might seem like a lot of money, but if many Americans participate, it isn’t. The Obama Campaign raised more than a billion dollars from small donations in 2008, while other politicians have raised more than that since. According to Gallup, while, their governments are not acting, most Americans want additional gun control. Given that their politicians won’t act because of a vocal and active minority, it is possible to get citizens’ to do so. They might be encouraged to part with $10, 20 or 50 to change their country. Like the ask made by Prohibitionists in the 1920’s, parting with $10 to $50 is an act many Americans could do. If a third of their population participates, you would have about 100 million people giving on average $10. Yup, that’s also known as a billion dollars. With such a small price paid, Americans could take the next step: deciding a company’s future. This group of people could decide to dismantle the gun company or turn it into a social responsible gun company or a company that makes something else or use the company’s profits to fix social ills. No matter what would happen next, the answer would be in the hands of Americans.
With all of this being said, I will be the first to acknowledge that 100 million Americans may not participate. However, one could still do a lot with the participation of ten, fifteen or twenty million Americans. For example, if ten million Americans provided on average $10 each, one could change the board of a major American Gun Company. That change would allow gun activists to change a company’s business model and their trajectory. Furthermore, the dividends and capital gains could fund their efforts to change those same companies.
That market oriented change would do two things. Firstly, it would change the actions of one major player effecting 10 to 25% of the US gun market in one blow. Secondly, it would show other players that they should change their behaviour before they are bought into, bought out or the market runs over their existing model.
While, this is not an end result or a magic bullet, it is a first step. It is a step that all Gun Control Advocates can participate in. Given that Americans don’t seem to have the muscle to make legislative or executive change at this point, Americans can use the market and the power of the purse to make changes. It is an effective policy solution from the past and I wish they would move forward with it. For watching the horrific and senseless deaths of our American Brothers and Sisters is a little more than I, and most Canadians, can take.