The gun department in a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Arlington, Va. on March 1, 2018. Credit: Olivier Douliery | TNS

“Let the market decide” is a frequent retort from conservatives when government or elected officials propose regulations on businesses, ranging from staffing levels at day care centers to health insurance standards.

The shortcoming of such thinking is that corporations are necessarily driven by profit making, not protecting our well-being.

Fossil-fuel based energy companies, for example, fight against rules to reduce their emissions of pollutants. Car makers argue against higher fuel economy standards. And tobacco companies challenge restrictions on cigarette sales and marketing.

But, occasionally, profit and human interest overlap.

Such is the case with guns. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced Wednesday that it would stop selling assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, which was already limited to its Field & Stream stores. It also announced that it would not sell any guns to anyone under age 21. Dick’s sold a gun to Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day. It was not the gun used in the mass shooting.

Hours later, Walmart announced it would also raise its gun and ammunition purchase age to 21. The nation’s largest retailer had stopped selling semi-automatic guns, like the AR-15, the gun of choice for the men who perpetrate mass shootings, in 2015. The chain had stopped selling all guns at about one-third of its stores in 2006, citing “diminished customer relevancy.”

Kroger will stop selling guns and ammunition to those under 21 at its Fred Meyer stores. It had already stopped sales of assault-style rifles.

Dick’s CEO Edward Stack said his company’s actions were motivated by the Florida shooting — and the lack of action from lawmakers. “Our hearts went out to those kids and to their parents,” he said in an interview with CNN. “And, you know, everybody talks about thoughts and prayers going out to them. And … that’s great. But that doesn’t really do anything. And we felt that we needed to take a stand and do this.”

“We had meaningful conversations about this with our team,” he added. “And we concluded that, if these kids are brave enough to organize and do what they’re doing, then we should be brave enough to take this stand.”

The company has already faced criticism and boycott threats for its decision, but Stack said it would not back down.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump made the unexpected announcement that he supported taking guns away from people who are deemed dangerous. “I like taking the guns early,” Trump said at a meeting with lawmakers on school safety and gun violence.

“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” he added.

Of course, Trump says lots of things that he later contradicts or abandons, and his dismissal of due process is concerning. But his comments add to a sense that the gun control debate is changing.

In Maine, the Legislature will debate beefing-up school security, but not restricting gun sales. In Washington, Sen. Susan Collins has introduced a bill to prevent people on the country’s no-fly list from buying guns. This makes sense. But it is not terrorists (for many, a code word for Muslims) who are killing Americans at schools, churches and entertainment venues. It is predominantly white men.

These are important discussions. But attention must also be paid to the more contentious front end of the problem, which is easy access to guns, especially the assault-style firearms often used in mass shootings.

Through their decisive action, two big players in the gun marketplace have put the focus on the heart of America’s gun violence, the sale of guns.

As Dick’s CEO Stack said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

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