In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, as we as a nation attempt to cope with our grief and fear, there is one overwhelming question: how do we stop this from happening again? It is a question that we have asked 347 times in 2017, following every mass shooting that has occurred: clearly, we don't have an answer.
The desire to end the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States is a nonpartisan cause. However, the parties differ in how they believe it should be done. That disagreement begins in the Second Amendment and ends in a deadlock wherein neither party is able to reach across the aisle to create a compromise. The result is a pervasive national sentiment of powerlessness as tragedy after tragedy occurs with no end in sight.
For many of us, the feeling of powerlessness is justified. There is a growing consensus from both parties that assault weapons should not be available for purchase and that it is incumbent upon the government to create legislation to block their sale. Currently, according to the Pew Research Center, it has support from 80 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans. However, aside from petitioning elected officials, there is very little an ordinary citizen can do to directly affect change in gun legislation. This is not true, however, for the companies who actually sell the guns.
Walmart, the United State’s largest gun vendor, and Cabela's, an outdoor sports retailer, are the first companies to utilize their influence over gun distribution in this country. The Las Vegas shooter's attack was particularly deadly because he equipped twelve of his rifles with a gun attachment called a “bump stock.” A bump stock replaces the normal stock, which is the part of the rifle that rests against the shoulder, and allows the gun itself to slide back and forth more easily. It uses the momentum of the kickback to actually push the trigger into the trigger finger, causing the gun to fire rapidly. This allows the rifle to fire nearly at the rate of machine gun. However, given that a rifle with a bump stock is not technically an automatic weapon, bump stocks are completely legal in the United States.
That does not mean, however, that companies are obligated to sell them: in 1919, in deciding the United States vs. Colgate & Co., the Supreme Court applied the Sherman Antitrust Act to decide that private companies get to choose what inventory they have and who it is supplied from. Nowadays, we just call it Refusal to Supply. Walmart and Cabela's exercised this right when they pulled all the bump stocks from their stores following the Las Vegas shooting.
This is an interesting clash that puts the power of the government up against the power of private companies: the government can make a product legal for sale, but it cannot force a company to sell it. Walmart has made it clear that, despite government legislation, it can actually control what people can and can't own. Walmart and Cabela's are acting like extra-legal authorities but their ability to do this is given to them by law: thus, they aren't outside the reach of the judicial branch, they are just filling the vacuum left by the government by utilizing the rights the government gave them.
This is not the first time that companies have a taken a political stance with their inventory; it isn't even the first time Walmart has done so. In 2015, Walmart, eBay, Amazon and Sears banned the sale of Confederate Flag merchandise following the church shooting in Charleston. In 2016, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer restricted the sale of certain drugs that are used to concoct a lethal injection and demanded that none ever be sold to correctional institutions to protest against the death penalty.
That doesn't mean, however, that people will stop trying to get their hands on the products in question. Since the Las Vegas shooting, demand for bump stocks has gone through the roof; according to Newsweek, six online gun retailers who have continued the sale of bump stocks have completely sold out of the item. Gun enthusiasts are clearly worried that the days of bump stocks are numbered and are shoring up reserves.
However, they may be right to worry. The Republicans, who traditionally are staunch supporters of pro-gun legislation, are reportedly open to enacting bipartisan legislation that would ban the sale of bump stocks. This compromise is currently opposed by the NRA but if it were to be made law, it would be major progress for the two parties who have yet to agree on anything regarding guns.
Where does this leave the nation? There are two apparent paths here: either our government will be inspired to action, even if that means crossing party lines, or companies will take matters into their own hands and use their influence to assert control over what Americans do or do not have access to. Either way, it seems like the debate over gun legislation, after years of stagnation, is slowly but surely moving.
This article has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Image licensed under Creative Commons; original can be found here.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.