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The groundwork for Wednesday's announcement by Dick's Sporting Goods that it will stop selling assault rifles in its stores started with a private conversation in January between company executives and a religion-affiliated investor group.
Mercy Investment Services, a St. Louis-based money manager for the Sisters of Mercy, had filed a shareholder proposal with the sporting goods retailer in December that called on it to re-evaluate its policies regarding sales of assault rifle, promote restrictions on gun sales and make a few other considerations related to safety and sales practices.
The nun group, led by Sister Valerie Heinonen, OSU, the director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investments, spoke with senior management at the retailer in late January and, based on several reasurrances by those executives, agreed to withdraw the proposal in February. The two sides have continued to talk.
On Wednesday, the CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, Edward Stack, announced the company would stop selling assault rifles in its stores, raise the minimum age for purchasers to 21, stop selling high-capacity magazines and make a number of other changes.
In a statement, Stack called out the activism of the high school students who survived a mass shooting in Florida earlier this month that left 17 dead, saying "We believe it's time to do something about it."
But in an interview Wednesday with CNBC, Heinonen says she believes her group's conversation in January with the company executives showed that change was already coming.
Investors, including Heinonen, have also filed shareholder proposals with two big gun makers, Sturm Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands, but the group has received no response. Dick's was "the first company that actually answered us," she said. "It was a very good conversation."
During the January conversation, executives from the retailer told the nuns that it maintains high standards in its firearm sales and inventory practices, does background checks and gun safety education at the point of sale, encourages gun safety and doesn't sell bump stocks or some other accessories, Heinonen told CNBC.
Dick's had already removed assault rifles from the shelves of its sporting goods stores after the 2012 killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. It has now removed them from its Field & Stream hunting stores. It also said it would push elected officials to ban assault-style weapons and strengthen background check rules.
"With Dick's we have achieved our goal: engage gun manufacturers and retailers regarding the positive role they can play in ending the epidemic of gun violence," according to a Feb. 15 letter Heinonen signed withdrawing the group's shareholder proposal.
"But we didn't know that they would follow through to this extent," she told CNBC on Wednesday.