For many years, the National Rifle Association has offered its members discounts on services like car rentals, flights, and insurance—the same kind of benefits you’d get for signing up with bland organizations like AAA. But last week, as fury raged over the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, angry Twitter users brandishing the hashtag #BoycottTheNRA started confronting companies for doing business with the gun rights group. Many brands quickly decided it was better to walk away than stick out the controversy. Delta and United Airlines cut bait, as did MetLife. Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise, and National Car Rental all sped off too.
By the weekend, a long list of companies had severed their ties, and Twitter users were busy harranguing holdouts like Amazon (which streams NRA TV) and FedEx. The NRA could do little in response but defensively puff out its chest.
The NRA is probably right about its members, who tend to view themselves as devoted gun rights crusaders and likely won’t stop paying their dues just because they’ve lost a few travel perks. But that’s largely besides the point. Successful symbolic campaigns like #BoycottTheNRA are important because they give causes a sense of momentum—and right now, gun control advocates need all the momentum they can get.
On the surface, #BoycottTheNRA looks a bit like the campaigns that convinced advertisers to pull their support from right-wing cable-news shows like Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor, the latter of which ultimately resulted in Bill O’Reilly getting kicked off Fox News. Both efforts use consumer activism to cut off conservative organizations from their business partners. But beyond that similarity, they’re pretty different efforts. Chasing off Fox’s ad partners was a way to hit the network’s finances directly and force it to make programming changes. Stripping the NRA of its Hertz discount isn’t likely to hurt the organization’s revenues. As long as several million Americans are convinced that New Yorkers want to confiscate their guns and melt them into statues of Barack Obama, they’ll probably keep renewing their memberships.
A more apt comparison might be corporate divestment campaigns, in which activists try to convince big investors like college-endowment and pension funds to pull their money from companies in order to protest their business practices. Divestment campaigns are famously ineffective at bringing down stock values; if someone decides to take a moral stand by selling off all their shares in oil companies, for instance, bargain hunters who are not targeted by any campaign will start buying until the price goes back to where financial math says it belongs. However, divestment can sometimes be a useful tool for stigmatizing industries, especially because it tends to generate lots of press coverage and give activists a goal that’s more easily achievable than passing legislation.
Convincing companies to bail on the NRA is a similar exercise. It may seem a little bit like internet slacktivism. But it does send a message that the organization is no longer politically mainstream, which might ultimately matter to some politicians. And even if it’s not actually moving any important needles in the short term, it gives people a sense that they can make a difference, however marginal, which matters a lot in the long term for any movement trying to keep up its energy.
Of course, there are downsides to trying to stigmatize gun groups. After all, the NRA has spent years convincing its members that their way of life is under threat from coastal elites who want to take away their cherished freedom to tote 30-round magazines. When a bunch of corporations cut ties to the group in response to a celebrity-backed Twitter campaign, it reinforces that message pretty neatly.
But aside from a stray New York Times columnist here or there, I don’t think anybody is banking on winning over the NRA’s hardcore members to the cause of better gun laws. At this point, the only hope is creating a sustained movement that will make it clear that getting weapons of war off store shelves is a serious priority for Democratic voters should the party ever retake power in Congress, and not just a fleeting interest that comes into focus when tragedy strikes. Turning the NRA into a pariah is a useful moral-boosting mission for gun control advocates, even if all it’s doing right now is denying some gun owners cheap car rentals.