The national debate over gun control is now sweeping up bike helmets and water bottles.
REI and Mountain Equipment Co-op, two outdoor retail chains that are also customer cooperatives, said Thursday they were suspending orders for popular items like Bell bicycle helmets and CamelBak water bottles from the company that owns the brands, Vista Outdoor, because Vista also makes assault-style rifles.
The move marks an escalation of the stances businesses have taken in the past week in the controversial gun debate since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., last month that killed 17 students and staff members.
The wave of responses started with a number of companies cutting ties late last week to the National Rifle Association, and gained momentum when Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Kroger announced changes to their gun policies, including halting the sale of firearms to customers under the age of 21. Late Thursday, L.L. Bean joined its retail counterparts, also announcing a minimum age of 21 to purchase weapons or ammunition in its flagship store in Freeport, Me., the only one where it sells firearms.
The stance by REI and Mountain Equipment also signals a widening of the goods and products that are coming under scrutiny in the gun debate. In recent years, Vista Outdoor, like other leading gun manufacturers, has acquired brands that are unrelated to their core firearm or ammunition businesses.
The acquisitions were done, in part, to diversify their revenue sources as gun sales, particularly in the past year under President Trump, have slumped, but also to rebrand, or emphasize, their connection to broader outdoor activities.
In its statement, REI said it believed it was the job of companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to “work towards common sense solutions that prevent the type of violence that happened in Florida last month.” REI suggested it was disappointed with Vista for not coming forward with an approach to finding those solutions.
After several days of active discussions, REI said it learned that Vista did not plan to make a public statement, outlining a clear plan of action. “As a result, we have decided to place a hold on future orders of products that Vista sells through REI while we assess how Vista proceeds,” the company said. “Companies are showing they can contribute if they are willing to lead. We encourage Vista to do just that.”
Vista did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment and has not issued any public response to the decision by the retailers. But one of its brands, CamelBak, tried to distance itself from Vista’s gun selling operation, arguing in a statement that it was an “incorrect assumption that the purchase of any of our products may support a cause that does not fit the mission/values of our brand.”
CamelBak, founded in 1989, is popular with athletes for its packs that allow athletes to hydrate without using their hands as well as brightly colored water bottles. It was acquired by Vista in 2015 for $412 million. “Our brand falls within the Outdoor Products segment of our company, which operates separately from Vista Outdoor’s Shooting Sports segment,” the company said in a statement. That segment manufacturers a variety of guns, including AR-15-style rifles.
The retailers are responding to the growing call-to-arms racing across social media. On Twitter and Facebook, lists and petitions are being widely circulated of myriad companies associated with the gun lobby or brands owned by gun manufacturers, urging customers to boycott and retailers to drop them.
“I only discovered a week ago that my children’s CamelBak water bottles and the Bushnell binoculars that I bought for my 10-year-old who is into birding were associated not only with the gun lobby, but with companies that manufactured assault weapons,” said Sarah Latha, a 39-year-old mother of three who works for the provincial government in Ontario. “It was incredibly disturbing.”
On Sunday evening, Ms. Latha put up a petition on change.org demanding that Mountain Equipment stop selling brands owned by Vista Outdoor. It quickly drew more than 50,000 signatures.
On Thursday, Mountain Equipment’s chief executive, David Labistour, posted an open letter to the retailer’s cooperative members, saying, effective immediately, the company would suspend further orders of the five brands owned by Vista Outdoor that the retailer carried. Existing inventory would continue to be sold in the store.
In the letter, Mr. Labistour said the decision came after hearing directly from many members, some of whom argued the decisions about these purchases should be left up to the consumer, not the retailer.
In his letter, Mr. Labistour noted, “we know that no decision we make will satisfy everyone. We are in the midst of a complex and highly charged debate with as many opinions as there are people expressing them.”