Howard Givner wants to make one thing clear: Though he’s passionate about gun control he’s not anti-guns. In fact, he’s gone to shooting ranges and enjoyed the experience, he told Convene. “I just think things have gotten a little crazy with how easy it is to get a gun, and military-grade weapons in particular, and the risk that presents in an open society.”
The threat gun violence poses to open society — and specifically to an industry whose business is to gather people together — prompted Givner, founder and CEO of Event Leadership Institute, to take action. In September, he wrote and distributed an open letter to the business events industry spelling out why we need to take a stand on gun control and inviting leaders to sign a petition to advocate two policy initiatives: instituting universal background checks and reinstating the federal assault weapons ban, both of which have large majority (and bipartisan) support in the country. Givner spoke with Convene about why he thinks there is no time to waste for the industry to speak out.
How did this start for you?
I’ve done a presentation at a number of conferences on disruptions facing the events industry, and I try to take a broad view of it. While I cover things like robotics and drones and AI and virtual reality and all that stuff, I also cover things that people might not think about as a disruption. And one thing that I’ve told people could be very disruptive to the industry is the prospect of a mass shooting at a business event and what that would do to that organization’s continued events and other events in that industry — and the industry in general.
There have been shootings for a long time and it doesn’t seem to know any bounds. When a shooter targeted the Walmart in El Paso, I thought, Why isn’t our industry speaking up about this?
What if instead of the shooter targeting Hispanic [shoppers] at the Walmart, he targeted a Hispanic lawyers’ convention — or, fill in the blank. That would get our attention. It’s just the whims of a very disturbed individual that he chose a Walmart instead of a convention center or a rally or an outing. We can do better.
What was important for you to communicate in the letter you wrote?
I wanted to lay out the business case for why mass shootings pose a significant risk to our industry. It seems like we’ve been naively thinking, “Oh, the shooting in Las Vegas — that’s a music festival. I do business events, an anesthesiology convention. This doesn’t really affect me.” That’s a real head-in-the-sand mentality.
I also wanted to remind people that the industry has a voice when it decides to use it, like when we pushed back on a number of anti-LGBT state laws just a couple of years ago. But for some reason, we’ve kind of punted on this one. Maybe it’s because there’s this narrative out there that any talk of gun control is a kind of political “third rail,” but that’s a false narrative. More than 90 percent of the country is in favor of universal background checks, for example, and you can’t get 90 percent of the country to agree on anything. Most people agree on this, but not enough are speaking out.
So I wrote this detailed letter, and sent it to maybe a dozen or so people I know who are influencers or thought leaders in this space and said, “I want to use this to start an initiative to drive legislative change, because that’s the voice that’s missing in our industry right now. It would be great to include your name on the petition so that if mid-level employees of a company are thinking of signing but are afraid [of being criticized], if they see leadership taking a stand, it’ll give them the comfort and the courage to step forward.” And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think we have 20 or so CEOs and thought leaders on board already, and more than 200 signatures.
How do you think the industry has dealt with the threat of gun violence so far?
All the efforts I’ve seen have been preventive and address the symptoms, like [convention centers installing] weapon scanners, active shooter drills and increasing security at events, which is important.
But there’s only so much we can do if Congress doesn’t step up, otherwise we’re constantly playing whack-a-mole. Heightened security at a convention center is great, but how do you protect the 5,000 attendees pouring out of it to wait in line to get on your shuttle buses, or when they get off the buses at the hotels, or when they are going to all the gazillion ancillary receptions around town?
The last few years, with all the gridlock in Washington, we’re starting to see that businesses are the ones driving real change now, and our industry can have a major impact here. But we’re at a real inflection point in the country, where significant majorities of the population support basic gun safety legislation. We just need to speak up and get Congress to do its job.
Aside from the tragedy of such an atrocity happening at a business event, what kind of domino effect do you think it might have?
We saw with the “AIG Effect” how quickly lots of companies got on the bandwagon and said, “You know what? I don’t need the optics of [having a face-to-face meeting]. We’re not a public company, we didn’t take a bailout, but I don’t need the headache. Cancel the holiday party or cancel the sales incentives or whatever.” That’ll happen with this. And it’ll be worse because that was just bad PR. This is something where a CEO could be opening their company up to liability — like, how could you go ahead with this health-care conference after the last banking conference had a shooting?
I’m not an alarmist person, but I just don’t think we’re fully grasping what the risk is. This is a safety issue. Duty of care is a concept that I didn’t see in any of the media five years ago. It’s gotten a lot of traction. This is a major duty of care issue and it’s a real business issue. I hope it doesn’t turn political, but you’ve got to advocate for what’s best for your industry and your constituents. I’m proud of the times our industry has taken a stand, and I encourage us to do so on this critical issue as well.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.