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‘We’re at a tipping point’ on gun violence, says group of American CEOs

On Thursday, a number of American business leaders joined the clamor of voices demanding meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence. CEOs from 145 major U.S. companies sent a letter to senators urging them to expand background checks and implement a “red flag” law. William Brangham talks to Richard Edelman, CEO of the public relations and communications firm Edelman, who signed it.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As Congress heads back to work following a string of deadly mass shootings this summer, pressure is building on lawmakers to pass meaningful legislation that could reduce gun violence in this country.

    Today, a number of corporate leaders and CEOs added their voices to the debate with a new campaign that's directed at the Senate. Previous gun legislation has often died there in the past.

    William Brangham has a closer look now at this new campaign.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    The CEOs of 145 U.S. companies just sent a letter to senators urging them to pass legislation to expand background checks on anyone seeking to buy a gun and to implement a national red flag law, which would allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns from anyone judged to be a danger to themselves or to others.

    The letter said, in part: "Doing nothing about America's gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable." And it's signed by the heads of companies like Levi Strauss, Twitter, The Gap, and Uber.

    Another of the signatories is Richard Edelman. He's the CEO of Edelman, the global public relations and communications firm. And he joins me now from New York City.

    Mr. Edelman, thank you very much for being here.

    Why now? Why did this letter — why so many CEOs feel the need to say this today?

  • Richard Edelman:

    We're at a tipping point.

    We had Dayton and El Paso. We have continuing gun violence in major urban centers. And CEOs feel that they are empowered to step forward into the void left by government, that three-quarters of people, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, now want CEOs to stand up and speak up on behalf of issues of the day.

    And that's a new kind of moment in corporate world. So CEOs are doing so, with the backing of their employees and the backing of their customers.

  • William Brangham:

    The reforms that you spelled out are things, as you well know, that are currently encased in bills that are already in the House, background checks and red flag laws.

    Why do you favor those particular reforms?

  • Richard Edelman:

    Well, Edelman went out into the field the last week of August and surveyed 1,000 Americans.

    And we found that more than 70 percent of Americans actually are going to be more trusting in companies that — where CEOs speak up on behalf of gun safety, and, further, that four in five said that they would be more inclined to buy brands where companies spoke out.

    So the private sector has every reason to speak up and urge the Senate to act on behalf of all Americans.

  • William Brangham:

    The letter that you all signed is addressed to the Senate, but we know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he's not going to bring any bill to the Senate floor that the president doesn't back.

    So shouldn't the president be getting this letter, as well as the Senate?

  • Richard Edelman:

    Again, our study was clear that the two preeminent goals of the Gun Safety Alliance are background checks and safe storage of guns.

    We are in favor of the Second Amendment right to bear arm, but we want that gun owners conduct their business safely. And gun owners want that, too; 70 percent of gun owners told us that they actually want these things, Republicans, a majority of them, a big majority of Democrats.

    So everybody is in favor, and we think President Trump should be the number one endorser of this legislation.

  • William Brangham:

    What are you and other CEOs going to do to keep up the pressure? It's one thing to sign a sternly worded letter to the Senate.

    It's another thing to, say, keep up lobbying members of Congress. It's another thing to, say, change the way or how you donate money. Do you have a sense that CEOs will find other ways to try to keep up the pressure?

  • Richard Edelman:

    There's no doubt that we're acting in a new way, talking to congressmen, also to senators, but we're also using the power of our employees, who are going to be our motive force.

    Employees want us to speak on their behalf. And it's an urgent time for CEOs to mobilize, in the sense, their entire supply chain of those who contribute to their businesses and get them to write letters as well.

    These 145 colleagues of mine are just part of the effort to get this legislation through.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned that this is, in essence, good for business to take this stance, that your customers have expressed to you that this is something they believe in, too.

    So is this a business decision that's being made, or is this being a decision that's based on principle?

  • Richard Edelman:

    This is a business decision. And it's a business decision because the entire focus of business now has to be employee-based.

    The number one trusted institution today is my employer. And there's new expectations of CEOs to stand up and speak up, whether it's about guns, LGBT, immigration, or other issues.

    So, in effect, in a vacuum, people are relying on brands and on corporations to answer the call.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you help me understand why it took so long for the business community en masse to come forward on this? I mean, why — after we failed to take any action after Sandy Hook, after Las Vegas, after Parkland, why did it take so long?

  • Richard Edelman:

    I think the real question for CEOs was, well, if I take a stand on guns, then I'm going to be asked to take stands on all sorts of issues.

    And I think there's a new crop of CEOs, younger, more socially oriented. Chip Bergh of Levi Strauss is leading the campaign for this letter. He has called dozens of CEOs.

    And now you see stores following Walmart's lead and Kroger and others asking customers to leave their guns out of the stores. It's now a movement. We have reached a tipping point.

    And change is only going to happen if business exerts its muscle in the political process. We need to see CEOs come to Washington, speak to their representatives, and urge them to do the right thing for the American people, which is to get background checks and safe storage.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Richard Edelman, thank you very much for being here.

  • Richard Edelman:

    Thank you for having me.

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