NEW YORK: US retailers Walmart and Dick's Sporting Goods became the latest companies to shift course on guns Wednesday, announcing they were ending firearms sales to consumers under 21.
Responding to the outcry over a Valentine's Day Florida school shooting that saw a 19-year-old kill 17 people, Wednesday's announcements will likely pile more pressure on US politicians to take steps to enact some kind of gun control.
Dick's Sporting Goods announced it would remove assault-style rifles from stores and end all gun sales to consumers under 21, calling on politicians to enact "common sense gun reform."
"We have tremendous respect and admiration for the students organizing and making their voices heard regarding gun violence in schools and elsewhere in our country," Dick's chief executive Edward Stack said. "We have heard you. The nation has heard you."
Walmart, the world's biggest retailer, later announced that it too would raise to 21 its minimum age to buy firearms and ammunition, the result of a policy review "in light of recent events."
"We are also removing items from our website resembling assault-style rifles, including nonlethal airsoft guns and toys," said Walmart, which in 2015 stopped selling assault-style rifles.
Last week other companies, including airlines, insurers and car rental chains announced the end of promotions with the National Rifle Association, revealing a partial shift in US gun politics amid fervent student-led activism and intense social media campaigns.
"Are we at a tipping point on guns?" George Washington University political management professor Matthew Dallek asked in a column Wednesday on Yahoo.
A Morning Consult poll found strong support for gun control within the broader population, with nearly two-thirds of registered voters backing tougher measures, including strong majorities among millennials considered important by marketers.
But in the past, public support for gun control has risen right after shootings only to retreat a few weeks later, said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup poll.
"Before we pronounce that there's been a major shift in terms of American public opinion, we need to see if it's sustained," Newport told AFP.
Companies are also keenly aware that they risk alienating customers who support gun rights, including the NRA, the powerful lobbying group which comprises more than five million members and has battled almost all gun regulation.
The NRA called last week's announcements "a shameful display of political and civic cowardice."
Trying to stay 'neutral'
A separate Morning Consult/Politico poll showed unfavorability rating among consumers doubled to 24 percent from 12 percent after announcing it ended a discount for NRA members, while its favorability rating was unchanged.
Stack said Wednesday he was prepared for a likely backlash following the Dick's announcement.
"We know this isn't going to make everyone happy," he told the news and feature show 'Good Morning America.' But after their ordeal "our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this we can be brave enough to take (the guns) out of here."
Companies that have shifted course have tried to thread the needle by championing gun ownership rights.
"Our heritage as a company has always been in serving sportsmen and hunters, and we will continue to do so in a responsible way," Walmart said.
FedEx has resisted the recent trend, maintaining a discount program for NRA members in spite of aggressive social media campaigns calling for it to be ended.
The NRA is one of "hundreds of organizations in our alliances/association Marketing program" and FedEx has "never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues," the company said on Twitter.
But the shipping company also said its positions on gun policy "differ from those of the NRA" and that it supports restricting assault rifles to the military and views the weapons as "an inherent potential danger to schools, workplaces, and communities when such weapons are misused."
Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, which ended discounts for NRA members flying to the group's annual meeting, described the shift as an attempt to maintain a "neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings," Delta said on Twitter.
"Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support" gun ownership rights protected by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
But the move was not seen as neutral by NRA supporters, including Georgia Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle who threatened on Twitter to "kill any tax legislation that benefits Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with the NRA."