How we got the gun industry to reckon with its deadly toll

How we got the gun industry to reckon with its deadly toll

NY Daily News, May 11, 2018

by Sr. Judy Byron & Rabbi Joel Mosbacher

Earlier this week in the Arizona desert, the shareholders of a major American gun company took a modest step toward responsibly addressing the unacceptable levels of gun-related deaths and crime in our nation. Shareholders of Sturm, Ruger & Co. passed a resolution requiring the company to issue a report on its actions to mitigate harm associated with its products.

The resolution was drafted and introduced by leaders of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) — with the support of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation (Metro IAF) — at the company’s shareholders’ meeting Wednesday in Prescott, Ariz. Management asked shareholders to vote against it. A team of religious and civic leaders from our groups, who have purchased Sturm Ruger shares, was there urging a “yes” vote and seeking dialogue with CEO Christopher Killoy.

After the vote, Killoy downplayed its significance. “The proposal requires Ruger to prepare a report,” he said. “That’s it. A report.”

Killoy is right. A report is all that is required of the Connecticut-based manufacturer. But let us explain why that is no small matter — one that was worth fighting for, and is now worth undertaking within other gun-related companies.

Five years ago, Metro IAF’s Do Not Stand Idly By campaign began to highlight the improvements gun companies can make in their products and practices — without any involvement from federal or state governments — in order to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in America. Gun manufacturers can make and sell guns with built-in or added-on safety features that make them childproof and useless to thieves. They can create distribution chains made up exclusively of responsible dealers; a first-rate dealer network could end the hemorrhaging of guns — through straw purchases, theft and unregulated sales — into the trafficking pipelines that feed crime and violence in our cities.

Citizens and religious leaders from across the country began seeking discussions with gun company CEOs about these changes. Finding no interest in a dialogue, we began organizing their customers: law enforcement leaders, who collectively buy 15% of the guns in America. Eventually, police chiefs, sheriffs and top officials representing 124 municipalities, counties and states across the U.S. jointly submitted a request for information to major gun manufacturers seeking answers on their safety practices and technologies.

Still no answer.

So we and other ICCR and Metro IAF leaders bought stock in the publicly held gun companies, attended shareholder meetings and began reaching out to the major institutional investors who own large chunks of these companies.

Our message to other investors is this: Join us in using your leverage to push gun companies to be more responsive, responsible and committed to safety. To do that, engage consistently and over the long term — not just in reaction to episodic mass shootings. Fewer than 2% of the U.S. gun deaths in 2017 were in events in which four or more victims were shot. The everyday gun violence in America, which disproportionately plagues communities of color, is driven by the huge illegal market in handguns. To have a measurable impact on these numbers, focus on improving gun distribution systems and reducing gun thefts.

We’ve been sharing ideas on how to do this with institutional investors. They were non-committal on ICCR’s resolution, at first. But we gained an unwitting ally along the way: Sturm Ruger management and its policy of non-engagement with shareholders and citizens alike. In the wake of the Parkland murders, investors began asking questions — closely aligned with the reasonable questions our groups and our law-enforcement allies have been asking. One financial heavyweight told us that Sturm Ruger’s practice of refusing to answer substantive questions about their practices left them no choice but to vote in favor of ICCR’s resolution and against the wishes of management.

Investment firms like BlackRock and Vanguard, along with public-sector pension funds, university and foundation endowments, religious funds and college savings plans, all own significant gun shares. Support from across this spectrum of institutional investors was critical in forcing Sturm Ruger management to issue a report next February that we hope will mark the beginning of a substantive dialogue on safety. We are ready to talk substance whenever Christoper Killoy is.

On the day Sturm Ruger’s shareholders passed ICCR’s resolution, the company’s share value jumped by almost $5. We believe that gun manufacturers can act in the prophetic tradition by saving lives, while still making healthy profits.

This is the message we will now take to American Outdoor Brands — the new name for America’s number-one crime gun maker, Smith & Wesson.

Byron, of the Sisters of the Holy Names, is the Coordinator of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. Rabbi Mosbacher co-chairs Metro IAF’s gun safety campaign.