After Parkland, Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Embraced Tougher Stance On Guns Ed Stack is a gun owner who was a longtime Republican donor. A year after Dick's Sporting Goods became an unlikely corporate face of gun control, it sees the fallout from its policy and lobbying.
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Soul-Searching After Parkland, Dick's CEO Embraces Tougher Stance On Guns

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Soul-Searching After Parkland, Dick's CEO Embraces Tougher Stance On Guns

Soul-Searching After Parkland, Dick's CEO Embraces Tougher Stance On Guns

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, we're marking one year since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. We're hearing from families trying to forge a way out of their grief and survivors who have turned their pain into political activism. Today we hear about the CEO who became an unlikely ally in pushing for more gun control. His company Dick's Sporting Goods is based near Pittsburgh, the site of another mass shooting that happened last October at a synagogue. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Almost nine months after the Parkland shooting, Ed Stack, CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, stands up in the audience of a New York Times conference. He's in his early 60s, white hair, navy suit. And he's up to talk about restricting gun sales at his stores. He's done it before. But this time, he gets personal.

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ED STACK: I'm not embarrassed to say I'm viewed as a relatively tough guy. I wouldn't characterize myself as a crier. And that weekend, I watched those kids. And I watched those parents, and I hadn't cried as much since my mother passed away.

SELYUKH: When Dick's executives ran the shooter's name through the internal systems, they discovered that months earlier they did sell him a gun while following all the laws. It was a different kind. It wasn't used in the shooting. But still, to Stack, this illustrated a broken system. So in February 2018, he went on a media tour. Here he is on CNN.

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STACK: 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.

SELYUKH: That stand had two key parts. Dick's Sporting Goods would completely stop selling the type of semi-automatic rifle used in the Parkland shooting. They're sometimes called assault style or military style, And Dick's would no longer sell any firearm to people under 21.

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STACK: We don't want to be a part of this story any longer now.

SELYUKH: Now, Dick's Sporting Goods is not a company known to go out on a limb. Its dress code didn't officially allow jeans at work until two years ago. But suddenly, Dick's was trending. It planted itself in the middle of the gun debate calling for reforms. This was remarkable. Dick's is the biggest sporting goods retailer in the country. Stack himself is a gun owner and was a longtime Republican donor. And Dick's is based in Western Pennsylvania where the gun rights debate is heated.

JODY SALERNO: I'll never shop there again. They'll never get another dime from me.

SELYUKH: I met Jody Salerno along with her business partner William DeForte at Salerno's gun store and shooting range called Elite Firearms & Training outside Pittsburgh.

SALERNO: With it being a homegrown company, it was more of a slap in the face...

WILLIAM DEFORTE: Yeah.

SALERNO: ...To Western Pa.

DEFORTE: Yeah.

SELYUKH: In which way?

SALERNO: You know, our roots are pretty deep with...

DEFORTE: The gun owner community.

SALERNO: ...The Second Amendment. Yeah.

DEFORTE: Hunting, defense, all the shooting sports.

SALERNO: Yeah.

DEFORTE: They pissed off their core firearm customer base.

SELYUKH: Opinions were divided around Pittsburgh. In the more liberal city center, people would say they were proud of the company. But beyond the city, gun owners said they felt betrayed. A few miles from Dick's headquarters are the grounds of the Forest Grove Sportsmen Association. Michael Karkalla shows me around the beautiful valley with shooting ranges, snowy woods, an icy creek.

MICHAEL KARKALLA: I grew up walking this crick. If I was 12 or 13 years old, I would've been out on that ice.

SELYUKH: Forest Grove is a club for hunters and fishers, archery and gun enthusiasts. And Karkalla is the chairman. He says some of the members actually work at Dick's. When Dick's decided to restrict gun sales, it was a huge topic of conversation, especially the new age limit of 21 now applying to all firearms and not just handguns as federal law says.

KARKALLA: You can vote at 18. That means you can vote. It's the way this country runs. You can enlist in the military and go fight and carry a fully automatic firearm.

SELYUKH: Now a year later, he says Dick's doesn't come up so often. The club tries not to talk politics. And personally, he disagrees with their policy but still shops there.

KARKALLA: They usually have the best price on, like, Penguins jerseys and Steelers jerseys.

SELYUKH: And Karkalla said something I actually heard a lot as I talked to people about Dick's Sporting Goods, even from supporters. It's this impression that the change was a knee-jerk reaction to Parkland. But Dick's had actually done something similar before. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Dick's stopped selling assault-style rifles. Later, they were back on sale only at the company's hunting-oriented field and stream stores. And people who know Stack will say he does not make rash decisions.

JIM RODDEY: Every decision he makes in the company, I think, is very calculated, and he's made good decisions.

SELYUKH: Jim Roddey is former chief executive of Allegheny County, home to Dick's Sporting Goods. He also used to chair the county's Republican Party which, in 2011, wanted Stack to run for Senate.

RODDEY: And we thought he would be a great candidate. His story is wonderful. Here's the young son that took over and built this empire.

SELYUKH: Stack's father, the eponymous Dick Stack, had started the company almost on a dare as a bait and tackle shop in Binghamton, N.Y. When his health declined, his son Ed and siblings took over. Ed opened the headquarters near Pittsburgh, took the company public. And it grew to more than 800 stores.

RODDEY: That business is his religion.

SELYUKH: And so historically, Stack's political and corporate work aligned. When Dick's Sporting Goods would lobby Congress, it was often on taxes.

RODDEY: He believed in lower taxes, certainly in lower business taxes. He believed in personal responsibility, individual freedoms, the Second Amendment.

SELYUKH: In all his interviews last year, Stack always mentions his support of the Second Amendment. According to his company, he still owns guns and is a registered independent. So what's been the financial fallout at Dick's? The company lost sales, especially in hunting goods. But its profit margin went up slightly because it makes less selling guns and ammo than sports equipment or clothing. Plus...

ROBERT SPITZER: Gun sales generally have been slipping.

SELYUKH: Robert Spitzer, professor at SUNY Cortland, says during the Obama years, there was a constant fear of a crackdown on gun ownership - not under Trump.

SPITZER: This has been widely referred to as the Trump slump.

SELYUKH: And hunting has been a drag for Dick's Sporting Goods for a long time. Fewer people hunt these days. In 10 stores, Dick's is actually running a test removing hunting goods entirely. But of all the moves by Dick's, the most controversial was the hiring of a new lobbying firm to advocate for gun control. Yet records show the company barely spent anything on the effort. When I asked the company about this, they said Stack saw no progress from his meetings in gridlocked Washington. So instead, he decided to speak about gun laws and his company's gun restrictions at events like that New York Times conference.

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STACK: We don't know for sure, but we actually think that saved some lives. And if we had a mulligan to do it all over again, we'd do it all over again.

SELYUKH: And he says Dick's is never turning back. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "PROFESSOR STRANGEWEATHER")

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