Who Wins When Harvard University Goes Up Against Ruger? Neither One.

You know the gun business is a serious business when someone writes about it in the Harvard Business Review.  And thanks to my friend Shaun Dakin, I just finished reading an article about the gun business published in the latest issue of HBR whose author, Robert Dolan, is a member of the Harvard Business School faculty.

Actually, the article is basically an update of a business school case study that Dolan published in 2013 which, although Dolan claims makes him someone who has studied the gun industry “in depth from a management perspective,” is actually an analysis of one company, Ruger, whose CEO, Michael Fifer, happens to hold a Harvard MBA degree.

Dolan’s article argues that gun companies should redefine their business practices to go beyond concerns for the bottom line and move from ‘management’ to ‘leadership’ by taking a more active role in making sure that company products are only used in safe and lawful ways.  Rather than just complying with gun laws, Ruger and other companies should take some of their profits and bring ’smart guns’ to market, expand programs that curtail straw sales and more closely monitor gun dealers who let their guns get into the ‘wrong hands.’

Even though Dolan attempts to validate his approach by invoking the legendary Peter Drucker (as if you can publish a Harvard case study without mentioning Drucker) there’s little here that can’t be found in many other calls for more gun industry responsibility, beginning with President Obama and moving on down. The Clinton Administration tried to get the gun industry to adopt all those ideas in 1998, and what they got for their efforts was a boycott of Smith & Wesson and then a law protecting the industry from class-action torts that was signed by George W. Bush in 2005.

To understand how the gun industry views Dolan’s argument for transitioning from management to leadership, you can find a response just below his comment from none other than Larry Keane, who happens to be the Senior Vice President of the NSSF. Keane begins his response by noting that “there is so much wrong in [Dolan’s] piece that it is hard to know where to begin.”  Actually, Dolan’s case study on Ruger contains more errors than his op-ed (including the extraordinary claims that the value of Ruger stock increased by more than ten times between 2008 and 2013), but Keane wants to make sure that everyone understands the basic idea that either you know the truth about the gun business or you don’t; and if you say anything negative about the gun business, you don’t.

Keane argues that policing the gun industry should be done by the police; i.e., law enforcement agencies like the ATF.  It’s a disingenuous argument at best, a wholesale fabrication at worst.  The Tiahart Amendment that severely curtails the ability of law enforcement to track illegal guns was not, as he claims, based on misrepresentation of gun-trace data by GVP advocates; it was nothing more than a successful effort to hamper government’s effort to regulate the gun industry through stricter enforcement of the distribution chain.

On the other hand, Professor Dolan is engaging in his own brand of wishful thinking by assuming that the gun industry is ready, willing or able to regulate itself.  Detroit didn’t begin installing seatbelts until the Federal Government mandated their use; the money spent by the gun industry to lobby against government regulations is a trifle compared to what the tobacco industry spends to stave off more government rules on cigarette sales.  If Dolan wants to write an interesting case study on the gun business, perhaps he should examine how and why the gun business has kept the regulators under control.

The GVP community rightfully takes umbrage at the degree to which the gun business has insulated itself from government mandates or controls, but the industry is just doing what comes naturally – no business owner wants the government to tell him what to do.


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