Opinion: Why Event Professionals Need to Mobilize Against Gun Violence

A call to action for event professionals to mobilize against gun violence.

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Howard Givner (@hgivner) is the founder and executive editor of the Event Leadership Institute. The opinions here are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of E.L.I.’s instructors, staff or supporters. BizBash is an investor in the Event Leadership Institute.

For a number of years, I’ve been giving a presentation at industry conferences on disruptions facing the event industry. Of all the potential disruptions—economic, political, technological, social, and others—guns and shootings at events is the one I’ve been most worried about. The most impactful disruptions to businesses are the ones we don’t see coming or pay enough attention to. Given the devastating effect of mass shootings at events, it’s shocking how little, if any, discussion there has been on the topic.

Mass shooters seek target-rich environments such as schools, places of worship, movie theaters, nightclubs. In short, places people gather. Events fit this profile, and I would argue we’ve been lucky more shootings haven’t taken place at them. Still, the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and caused widespread panic should have mobilized the event industry about sensible gun control. At best we talk about active shooter drills or enhancing security.

On September 12, 145 C.E.O.s sent a letter to the U.S. Senate urging them to take action on this issue. They included Uber, Levi Strauss, Dicks Sporting Goods, Gap, Twitter, Condé Nast, and Omnicom, as well as event and hospitality industry companies Eventbrite, Airbnb, Splash, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Stanlee Gatti Designs. It is long overdue that our industry join this effort.

The ‘Duty of Care’ Imperative
At its core, this is a safety issue. The duty of care principle calls for planners to do whatever is reasonably feasible to safeguard the well-being of event attendees, staff, and other stakeholders. When thinking of all the things that could go wrong, surely nothing would be worse than mass murder at an event.

Just about any other safety risk would galvanize the event industry to action. Yet, we’re far too passive on guns. That’s like reacting to a string of E. coli outbreaks at events by telling planners to stock extra Pepto-Bismol, but not lobbying the Food & Drug Administration to increase food safety oversight. We can, and must, address both the cause and the symptoms.

The Business Risk
One of the 9/11 Commission Report’s most haunting statements is that those attacks could have been foreseen and prevented. This shouldn’t be a problem for our industry: the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest in the history of the United States, took place at a festival. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but that’s different; I plan conferences,” let’s paint an image closer to home.

Picture someone committing a mass shooting at the most important, high-profile event you work on. What would the fallout be for that event and your organization? What lawsuits would your company be facing? All your events would suddenly have a much less attractive risk/reward calculus for company leaders. And if you did move forward, how big of an attendance drop would you see? How many sponsors would pull out? How muted would the attendee experience be?

The damage wouldn’t stop there. If a mass shooting occurred at a banking conference, for example, you can bet that executives at the other banks would be re-evaluating their own event plans. Even if you think we’re used to mass shootings here and people will move on, remember that no other country has shootings on this scale, and attendees outside the U.S. will start re-thinking coming to events here. In fact, countries are issuing advisory warnings about the risks of gun violence when traveling to the U.S.

Increased Costs
Events would start to incur significantly higher security costs due to additional guards, metal detectors, physical barriers, surveillance cameras, and other tools. Registration lists would have to be scrutinized more carefully. Tighter security for vendors at the loading dock would slow the installation process and require longer rental periods. The small armies of catering and event staff would have to go through background checks. Insurance for venues, hosts, and vendors would increase.

Open Carry Laws
While a mass shooting is clearly the worst of the gun scenarios, event attendees openly carrying firearms should also be a cause for concern. Picture the impact of someone with an AR-15 slung over their shoulder walking your show floor, or someone with a holstered handgun arguing with registration personnel, or whether it would stifle debate of a controversial topic at a panel discussion if one of the participants displays a gun.

Even if you’re able to bar firearms at your event, which a number of states do not allow, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop people from being armed in common areas like convention center or hotel lobbies or ancillary event sites like restaurants.

Currently 44 states allow open carry of long guns (rifles and shotguns). Further, 31 states allow open carry of handguns with no permit required, while another 15 states require some permit or license.

Where Is the Industry’s Voice?
Given the potentially devastating impact of guns and gun violence, it’s surprising, and quite frankly disappointing, that the meeting and event industry hasn’t been more vocal in advocating for sensible gun safety.

We have a voice when we want to use it. The movement to fight human trafficking has received broad support at the highest levels. The same can be said of incorporating sustainability and inclusiveness practices. When Charles Schwab recently announced it was curtailing incentive travel due to “significant reputational risks,” the Incentive Research Foundation immediately pushed back.

But those issues aren’t controversial, some might say. No one is actually in favor of human trafficking, right? Well, look at the industry’s response to recent anti-L.G.B.T.Q. state laws, which did have strong support in those states:

  • When Indiana passed a religious freedom law (noted by the case of the baker who refused a gay wedding client on religious grounds), a convention industry backlash caused them to rethink it.
  • When North Carolina passed a bathroom bill requiring transgender people to use the restroom of the gender on their birth certificate, numerous organizations pulled their events.
  • When Tennessee passed a law enabling therapists to refuse to treat patients if it would conflict with a religious belief, the American Counseling Association pulled its 2017 convention out of Nashville, even though it cost $750,000 in cancellation fees.

Taking A Stand
What will it take before we start speaking out on the mortal threat gun violence poses to our businesses and the people we are charged with safeguarding at our events? Where is our outrage? Now is the time to act. Let’s not wait until another atrocity occurs at an event. Let's start by advocating two policy initiatives that can have a major impact, and already enjoy widespread (and bipartisan) public support.

Institute universal background checks by demanding that the U.S. Senate pass the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which the House of Representatives passed in February. This closes the ‘gun show loophole’ which exempts private sales from standard background checks. A Fox News poll showed that 90 percent of Americans support this.

Reinstate the federal assault weapons ban (which also covers high capacity magazines) that expired in 2004. Weapons of war should be reserved for the military, police, and other properly trained security forces. A Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that 70 percent of Americans support this.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Sign a petition on behalf of our industry, supporting the two basic gun safety proposals outlined above, which will be delivered to members of Congress and state legislatures.
  • Join a growing coalition of C.E.O.s, thought leaders, and industry professionals who want to make a difference. Email me to get involved.
  • Contact your elected officials and let them know how this issue affects your events and businesses.
  • Speak out. Share your concerns on social media. Email editors at industry publications. Talk to your association leaders.

Make your voice heard. The current system is unsustainable and we must work toward a solution together. Your event attendees’ safety, and your livelihood, may very well depend on it.

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