A few weeks after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a group of high school students in Pasadena, California, started an on-line petition asking their local school board to stop buying supplies at retailers—like Walmart—that sell assault weapons. “We can say we support change and gun control,” explained 15-year-old Roxana Honowitz, a sophomore at Pasadena High School, “but it’s hypocritical if we also support places that sell guns by buying supplies from them.”
The students’ effort is part of a broader strategy that many groups quickly embraced—targeting the $12 billion-a-year gun industry, including those who finance, manufacture, and sell guns and ammunition. The campaign has parallels with previous divestment, boycott and “corporate” campaigns used by unions, environmental groups and anti-apartheid activists to put pressure on business practices by mobilizing shareholders, consumers and investors.
After World War I, critics of munitions manufacturers coined the phrase “merchants of death” to attack corporations that profited from the sales of military weapons. Those corporations had become a powerful lobby that, some argued, helped push the nation into war. Today’s “merchants of death” include companies that profit from making and selling military-style weapons and ammo to civilians. Businesses and investors that benefit from the sale of these killing machines are partly responsible for the nation’s epidemic of violence—an average of thirty gun deaths, not including suicides, each day. They need to do the responsible thing and completely stop the production, distribution and sales of weapons to civilians that are made for military use or based on military designs. And if they won’t do so willingly, public pressure should force them to do so.
In mid-January, President Obama announced his plan to curb the epidemic of gun violence, including a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and more comprehensive background checks on potential gun buyers, including those who purchase their weapons at gun shows and over the Internet. A number of states already have such bans in place, some, including New York, have recently strengthened them, and a few others have similar proposals in the works. But some cities, investors and consumer groups aren’t waiting for state and federal government officials to act. They are pushing gun makers and retailers to end the production and sale of these weapons of mass destruction.
Walmart, the nation’s largest seller of guns and ammunition, removed the Bushmaster AR-15 style assault rifle—the one Adam Lanza used to kill twenty children and six adults in Newtown—from its website. Walmart got plenty of positive attention—but only removed the Bushmaster assault rifle from its website, while it continued to sell assault weapons in stores. It’s obvious that voluntary action by manufacturers is not enough.
Within days of the Newtown massacre, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (Calstrs) started asking questions of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that owns Freedom Group, the gun manufacturer that made the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. The pension fund has $750 million invested with Cerberus. Stephen Feinberg, Cerberus’s owner, quickly announced that the firm would sell Freedom Group. California Treasurer Bill Lockyer said that the state’s pension funds (California Public Employees’ Retirement System as well as Calstrs) should be “scrubbed clean” not only of Freedom Group but of any investments that make military-style assault weapons and other guns that are illegal in the state “and expose our communities to violence and death.” Thomas DiNapoli, the New York State comptroller, called for a review of the $150 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund’s investments in firearms makers, including its $50 million invested with Cerberus. Massachusetts Treasurer Steve Grossman asked his state’s pension fund to do an audit to see if it has investments in firearms industry.