Guns and Weapons

Big Investors Have Clout. They Can Use It With Gun Makers.

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Over the past several weeks, there has been a lot of talk about investors ridding themselves of their shares in gun manufacturers and retailers after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. A number of public pension funds, like those in the state of Connecticut, have discussed the prospect of selling their shares.

But here's a counterintuitive idea: Use those stakes in the gun industry to encourage reforms.

That's what Larry Fink, chairman of BlackRock, the largest investor in the world, has the opportunity to do — if he is true to his word about holding companies accountable to "not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society."

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Mr. Fink repeated those words to me last month when I wrote a column about a letter he delivered to the world's top executives in January, pressing them on social responsibility.

Well, it turns out that Mr. Fink's firm is one of the largest owners of gun manufacturers in the country. It wasn't a conscious choice by BlackRock; because BlackRock is the largest index investor in the world and gun makers are included in various indexes, it owns large stakes in American Outdoor Brands; Vista Outdoor; and Sturm, Ruger by default. None of its actively managed funds — in which a manager actually decides to make investments in a particular company — has a stake in a gun manufacturer.

So what can BlackRock reasonably do? In a three-page paper issued Friday, the firm said "we have reached out to the major publicly traded civilian firearms manufacturers and retailers to engage in a discussion of their business practices."

Larry Fink
Olivia Michael | CNBC

BlackRock says, for example, that it is asking gun makers questions like, "What steps do you take to support the safe and responsible use of your products?" and "How do you assess the financial, reputational and litigation risk" of your product lines?

Mr. Fink deserves credit for pressing companies on social responsibility. But while engagement is good, there is real opportunity to do much more.

BlackRock could make a reasonable argument that, between customer blowback and the potential for regulatory pressure, it is in the financial interests of everyone in the gun manufacturing and retail chain to reform themselves voluntarily. And if companies don't take such steps, BlackRock — and everyone else who owns shares in these companies — could vote to oust their boards of directors.

BlackRock has enormous influence over both gun makers and retailers. It could pressure them to raise the minimum age for buying AR-15-style rifles to 25 years old, and impose strict screening and background checks that go far beyond what is required by law. BlackRock could even push gun makers to stop producing such weapons altogether.

It could also recommend that gun manufacturers and retailers make and sell "smart guns" employing technology that allows only the registered owner to use it; that could prevent children from using guns and reduce deaths and injuries related to stolen firearms. (No retailer has ever sold a "smart gun" in the country, in part because of pressure from the gun industry and lobby. Where are you Dick's and Walmart?)

At the moment, BlackRock seems to be doing a lighter-touch version of what I described. In its statement on Friday it made a veiled threat: "Based on our engagement conversations and our long-term view of the company, we may vote against specific directors or we may vote against management on shareholder proposals."

BlackRock is a fiduciary so it must make a financial case for such changes — showing that taking those steps would turn out to be more profitable in the end. It can't simply press for such action on moral grounds.

But the evidence is already clear: Remington, America's oldest gun company, which since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 has struggled to access the capital markets or find any buyer, filed for bankruptcy protection just two days before the shooting in Parkland. And retailers are already forcing the issue: Companies like Dick's, Walmart and Kroger have raised the age for gun purchases on their own.

Not to mention that consumer boycotts could hurt the bottom line of both gunmakers and retailers that don't take action on their own.

Gunmakers may want to focus more on what's playing out with REI. The outdoor retailer doesn't sell guns, but it said it would stop selling Camelbak water pouches and Giro helmets because they are made by Vista Outdoor, which does sell guns.

REI was direct in stating that it was holding Vista accountable for its approach. "This morning we learned that Vista does not plan to make a public statement that outlines a clear plan of action,'' it said in a statement last week. "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."

It is not just BlackRock that has an opportunity to use its ownership clout.

Goldman Sachs, for example, took a stake in Cabela's, the outdoor and firearms retailer — which sells AR-15's — as part of a private equity deal it financed last year when Bass Pro Shops acquired Cabela's. Why Goldman Sachs, which has had its own share of bad publicity over the years and always talks about being in the business of making sound judgments, would actively participate in a deal for a major gun retailer is baffling. (Several Goldman employees told me there has been a lot of conversations about how embarrassing it is that the firm was involved in the transaction.)

But now that Goldman is involved, it has a chance to use whatever influence it can muster to bring about reforms. The bank says it has been in touch with Cabela's management so we'll have to see what happens next.

Others are also surveying the landscape.

"We will be engaging with weapons manufacturers and distributors to seek greater transparency from them on the ways that they will support the safe and responsible use of their products," State Street, the financial services firm, said in a statement. Vanguard is talking to manufacturers, but it has not taken a public stance.

For gun-control advocates, any business that invests in gun makers or retailers may seem an anathema. But given the pressure already coming from the outside, the best chance for real change may end up coming from those very same investors.