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The main floor retail space as seen from the second floor where clothing, camping, climbing and footwear are located in the Mountain Equipment Co-op store in Toronto.Fred Lum

Mountain Equipment Co-op, a leading retailer of outdoor gear in Canada, is reconsidering some of the products it sells after a small protest online over the weekend called for the co-op to cut ties with a U.S. gun and ammunition maker.

Since the killing of 14 teenagers and three adults at a Florida high school on Feb. 14, a spotlight has started to brighten on Vista Outdoor Inc., based in Farmington, Utah. About half of Vista Outdoor's sales are in what it calls shooting sports. It has military and law enforcement customers. One of its brands is Savage Arms, which sells semi-automatic military-style weapons similar to one used in the killings in Florida. The other half of Vista Outdoor's sales is outdoor recreational products.

"We are held to a different standard than many of our competitors, which is a good thing," said David Labistour, chief executive officer of MEC, in an interview on Monday. MEC doesn't sell weapons, but it is trying to figure out what to do about the outdoor products it sells that are connected with Vista Outdoor, he said. "We have more questions than answers right now."

Users of the outdoor gear have become increasingly aware of its connection to guns in the last week or so. Brands owned by Vista Outdoor include CamelBak, Giro and Bell. These names make things such as water bottles and bike helmets, and are sold at many retailers – Costco, Walmart, and Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd.'s Sport Chek among them. MEC has several products owned by Vista Outdoor on its shelves.

Brands such as CamelBak operate independently from Vista Outdoor, Mr. Labistour said. Similar to MEC, CamelBak focuses on issues such as sustainability. Mr. Labistour had not been aware of the tie between the outdoor brands MEC sells and guns side of Vista Outdoor.

The questions around Vista Outdoor come amid a growing concern among large corporations in the United States. They are breaking ties with the National Rifle Association, the powerful industry lobby group that fights against gun control. MetLife Inc., a large insurer, ended a discount program with the NRA. First National Bank of Omaha has a co-branded Visa with the NRA, but said it will stop issuing the credit cards. Several airlines and rental car companies are cutting marketing ties with the NRA, which has several million members. Others haven't made a move, such as FedEx Corp., which faces mounting pressure to drop discounts it hands to NRA members. There is a hashtag #BoycottFedEx on Twitter.

"This is just the beginning," predicted brand expert David Kincaid, CEO of consultancy Level5 Strategy.

"This is going to hold companies to a higher level. Social media has given people a platform and a voice. That's the reality."

MEC has made the right moves, Mr. Kincaid said.

"What MEC's done, to this point, is responsible. They're saying we hear you, and we will respond accordingly."

Vista Outdoor did not answer requests for comment, nor did Canadian Tire.

The Vista Outdoor issue turned toward MEC over the weekend, but it had already percolated elsewhere. Last week, Outside Magazine headlined a story: "Should our morals determine our gear purchases?"

On Friday, a petition was started by Sarah Latha on that called on MEC to stop selling brands from Vista Outdoor. On Saturday morning, Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former foreign policy adviser to the Prime Minister, tweeted about the issue, with a link to his wife Katie's post on Facebook about it. Between the tweet, Facebook post and petition, there were about 4,000 signatures, retweets, likes and shares by Monday afternoon.

MEC started to respond on the weekend. On Twitter on Sunday night, it said the co-op's senior management would discuss the issue "first thing on Monday" and said an update would be provided later in the day. MEC's update said it was asking tough questions about its supply chain.

One Vista Outdoor brand, for example, is Bushnell, from which MEC sells binoculars. Bushnell also makes tactical scopes used by militaries.

Other products MEC sells from Vista Outdoor include camp kitchenware and stand-up paddleboards.

Vista Outdoor was established in 2015, when it was spun off from Alliant Techsystems Inc., a large American aerospace and defence industry company. ATK, as the company was known, was merging with Orbital Sciences Corp. When Vista Outdoor was on its own, the company looked to diversify its offerings from guns and ammunition.

Vista Outdoor sales and profit of outdoor products are rising, according to the company, whereas sales and profit are stagnant on its guns and ammo side.

In the summer of 2015, Vista Outdoor paid US$413-million for CamelBak, which was to maintain its own headquarters in Petaluma, Calif.

In early 2016, Vista Outdoor paid US$400-million for brands such as Giro and Bell – helmets used in sports such as cycling, skiing and snowboarding – from BRG Sports Inc.

Follow David Ebner on Twitter: @davidebnerOpens in a new window

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