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Left brings campaign against gunmakers to Wall Street

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Left brings campaign against gunmakers to Wall Street

Activists on the left are opening a new front in their campaign to undercut gun manufacturers, this time putting pressure on financial companies and pension funds.

Progressives have already seen great success pressuring retailers to limit gun sales, with a slew of chains in recent days pledging that they will not sell certain rifles to people under the age of 21.

Now activists are hoping to deal a bigger blow to gun manufacturers by getting the financial world to turn against them. But the effort could be a heavy lift, with no signs that investment houses will bow to the pressure.

“There are a lot of people talking about it but there aren’t many people taking immediate action,” said one K Street veteran representing financial services companies. “There are very few companies that will make decisions based on the current climate.”

The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has spurred a national debate about firearms, in part fueled by the advocacy of students who survived the attack. 

While lawmakers have deadlocked on a legislative response, prominent companies such as Walmart, Dicks Sporting Goods, REI, and Kroger have all announced plans to either cease gun sales entirely, stop selling certain rifles, or refuse to sell arms to people younger than 21.

The sudden shrinkage of corporate gun-sellers could take toll on arms companies. Stocks in gunmakers dropped as retailers announced their plans. 

While activists were successful in pushing retailers to limit gun sales and pressing other companies — Bank of America, Hertz and Delta among them — to cut ties with the NRA, they’ve made less progress convincing asset managers to pull billions in investments from gunmakers. 

Few U.S. investment firms that hold stock in gunmakers have responded to calls to divest from the industry. Those that have insist they can’t refuse to meet the demands of clients. They say they can offer socially conscious investment alternatives while pushing gun industry executives to change. 

Still, the pressure on the financial industry grew this week when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a possible White House candidate in 2020, joined the effort. She sent letters to the biggest U.S. investment firms asking how they’d use their power to punish gunmakers. 

“Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is,” Warren wrote to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink.

BlackRock manages than $6 trillion in assets, making it the largest asset manager in the U.S. and holder of the most shares in gun companies. The firm has also made the strongest commitment to leverage its power to advocate for broader gun safety measures. 

BlackRock pledged in Friday note to clients that it would question the gunmakers it has holdings in — American Outdoor Brands, Vista Outdoor and Sturm Ruger — on a variety of issues related to limiting gun deaths.

The firm said it would press those companies on how they prevent dangerous individuals from buying guns, ensure compliance with federal and state law, track the guns they sell, and increase gun safety education at the point of sale.

BlackRock also hinted it could vote against the proposals of executives gunmakers or retailers if they aren’t satisfied with their gun policies. 

“Engagement is a long-term process,” the company said. “Yet this is an issue of tremendous urgency.”

Even so, BlackRock said it will not block clients from buying shares in gunmakers, nor will delist indexes that contain companies that make arms. The firm said it would help any client tailor their portfolio to avoid gunmakers or support companies that take stances against them. 

“BlackRock manages money for a diverse set of investors,” the firm said, “who have a broad set of views on firearms.”

“Of course, it is our clients’ decision when and how to use these products to achieve their goals. It is their money, not ours.” 

Other major investment firms have highlighted the tools they offer to screen out gun stocks without pledging to pressure companies themselves. 

“We understand that some investors may choose to advance specific causes, based upon personal, social or ethical values, along with investment goals,” said Sophie Launay, a spokeswoman for Fidelity, which manages than $2 trillion in assets.

“Specialized funds are available that provide investors this choice by avoiding investments in companies operating in certain industries, or specific parts of the world.” 

Carolyn Wegemann, a spokeswoman for Vanguard, said just 29 of the 388 investment funds the company offers have holdings in gun stocks. Vanguard manages than $3 trillion in assets.

She also highlighted the firm’s Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund, which “screens companies based on certain social and environmental criteria” and excludes gun manufacturers. 

State Street Global Advisors pledged to speak with gunmakers on ways to bolster “the safe and responsible use” of guns. 

MetLife, which recently ended its partnership with the NRA, declined to comment. Invesco, Charles Schwab and JP Morgan also declined to comment.

Activists have had success in pressuring state pension plans, including those for teachers, to divest from gunmakers. State officials in New Jersey, Florida, Michigan have pursed ways to pull investments in arms and ammo producers.  

But Wall Street isn’t likely to follow, said the K Street veteran. Many of the retailers that pivoted away from guns did not halt sales all together, he noted, and said the decision was dictated by public relations as much as profit.

“They’re all calculated decisions,” he said. “There is someone behind the scenes tallying up the amount of customers you will win or lose or gain or offend based on this decision.” 

The companies hope “the news will go somewhere else, people’s attention will go elsewhere and it will be back to normal for the business community.” 

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