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An ethical approach to business - and gun sales

An ethical approach to business - and gun sales
Companies like Salesforce are refusing to do business with companies that sell certain types of high-powered firearms, potentially asserting the kind of gun control the public wants but the federal government has failed to adopt. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

Most Americans have likely never heard of Salesforce. But in the cloud-based software business, the kind used for customer-relationship management or CRM, the San Francisco-based, $120-billion Fortune 500 company employing 40,000 people is huge. If you operate a company that sells stuff online, you may well subscribe to Salesforce business software. And that’s where a company called Camping World Holdings comes in.

As first reported last week by The Washington Post, Salesforce has decided it will no longer sell its products to companies like Camping World. Why? Because the retailer sells firearms and other gun-related products that Salesforce has deemed unacceptable. The list of forbidden items includes high-capacity magazines, military-style assault weapons, automatic and certain semi-automatic guns, 3-D printed guns and multi-burst trigger devices. This new policy could prove costly to companies like Camping World, which spends more than $1 million a year on Salesforce software.

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Naturally, Salesforce’s decision has raised a hue and cry from the gun rights crowd, which recognizes that what the federal government has failed to do for a generation — adopt reasonable limits on the most powerful firearms in the wake of mass shootings like last Friday’s in Virginia Beach — might actually be achieved in the coming years by ethically-minded business leaders. The NRA and its ilk may decry this as discriminating against gun owners, but, as luck would have it, the Constitution doesn’t actually guarantee the rights of gun retailers to buy any software they please. Salesforce doesn’t have to sell to companies that profit from guns used to mow down schoolchildren.

This business of not selling a product on moral grounds can be tricky, of course. But Salesforce is hardly the first company to go down the social activism road. Bank of America, Citigroup, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have cut back their business associations with guns, too. Amazon and Ebay don’t allow gun sales, period. Trailblazing companies risk a backlash. Dick’s, for example, has publicly acknowledged that its hunting-related business has fallen significantly in response to a decision earlier this year to stop selling guns and ammunition in certain stores and to raise the minimum age to buy a gun to 21.

Salesforce may not sell guns directly like Dick’s or Camping World, nor can it stop lending money to retailers who sell guns to people below the age of 21 or market bump stocks or large magazines like Citigroup, but its influence in business software might prove an even more powerful platform. Founder and co-CEO Marc Russell Benioff is known to be a forceful advocate for social causes. The billionaire called for a ban of the AR-15 on his Twitter account in February. Last year, his company hired a “chief ethical and humane use officer” to make sure Salesforce software is not used for unethical purposes. Guns may prove just the beginning.

Conservatives will no doubt point to this and see a diminution of their rights. What’s the difference between refusing to sell software to a gun retailer, for example, and refusing to sell wedding cake to a same-sex couple, they will ask. The answer is that gun owners are not a protected class. Employers can’t discriminate based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or disability. Someone refuses to wear a shirt and shoes into your store? You can refuse them service. So it is with guns.

Virginia Beach city officials hold a press conference Friday afternoon regarding a shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center that left 12 dead, including the gunman, and six injured.

The suspect in the Virginia Beach shooting that has so far left 12 people dead used both a recently-purchased silencer (suppressor) and an extended capacity magazine, both of which likely aided his rampage, making it more difficult for police to find him and requiring him to pause and reload less often. Might vendors be successfully pressured to stop selling such devices? And if the Virginia Beach shooter had been denied them, might the subsequent body count have been lower? That likelihood is simply too strong to be ignored.

If nothing else, the Salesforce decision to stake out the moral high ground gives us hope. Most Americans support sensible restrictions on gun purchases. Even people who identify as NRA members support comprehensive background checks, for example, polls show. But Congress has demonstrated repeatedly it is not up to the task of adopting such regulations even after tragedies like the mass shooting one year and three months ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and staff members dead. The NRA’s grip on Washington is simply too powerful. Its hold on the public — and on the business community — can be overcome.

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