Unlike most boycotts, the #BoycottNRA campaign might really work

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If the NRA were a publicly-traded corporation, I’d be short selling its stock. Not because the organization is going away any time soon, or because I think Americans are going to repeal the Second Amendment any time soon. But because a group of high school students seem to be doing substantial damage to its already divisive brand.

And I’m willing to predict that its brand is going to suffer serious and meaningful damage over the coming weeks and months.

The primary reason is, of all things, a commercial boycott, spearheaded by the student survivors of the recent Florida school massacre, and their supporters. It’s one of the few boycotts I’ve seen that I think actually makes sense, tactically and ethically.

It’s an unusual boycott, in many ways. It’s not aimed at the NRA’s core business—for a membership-based organization like the NRA, that would mean reducing membership. Yes, the boycott is officially called (and hashtagged) #BoycottNRA, but those involved aren’t boycotting the NRA itself, burning their membership cards and so on. They’re boycotting companies that do business with the NRA, and in most cases this means companies that provide benefits to NRA members in the form of things like discounts on purchases or cash-back NRA-branded credit cards. And a stunning string of companies—from Avis to Delta Airlines to MetLife to Symantec—have already caved to the pressure.

(Note: There’s a Wikipedia page about the boycott, with a running tally of companies that have succumbed to the pressure. See: 2018 NRA Boycott.)

Boycotts are mostly stupid, and often immoral. They seldom have much impact, and are often more likely to hurt low-level employees than CEOs or shareholders. Front-line employees, after all, are the ones who get yelled at by angry boycotters, and are most likely to be lose their jobs if the targeted organization ends up needing to tighten its belt. Their role, in most cases, is to let people vent, to engage in virtue signalling, and to give them a focus for their indignation.

But this one, I think, is different. For one thing, the boycott is so diffuse—targeted as it is at dozens of companies—that little real impact can be expected to be felt by those companies, in terms of the bottom line. (Sure, a bunch of people will give up using FedEx—one of the few major companies to hold its ground against the boycott— but are they really going to boycott two dozen companies, and suffer that much disruption of your consumption habits? I bet few will.) This means that no innocent bystanders are likely to be harmed. The pressure is primarily symbolic, and so are the concessions.

The NRA itself is characteristically full of bravado. “Let it be absolutely clear,” the organization said recently in response to the boycott. “The loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world.”

Well, no kidding. But surely that’s not the point. Hurting the NRA by driving a wedge between them and a couple dozen national brands is intended to send a signal to politicians who are cozy with the NRA. Affiliation with the NRA is no longer a clear plus, if it ever was. As the NRA’s brand weakens, so are those relationships likely to become less cozy.

And that’s a good thing.

In just about any other industrialized nation, the NRA would be a quaint fringe group. And its antiquated understanding of what a citizenry needs in order to safeguard itself against tyranny would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous. It’s long been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. We’re about to find out whether the boycott is mightier than the gun.

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