Why Did UUs Buy Stock in a Gun Company?
I’m a member of the Preventing Gun Violence Task Force at the Unitarian Society of New Haven (USNH). We recently bought shares in two companies that manufacture firearms. “What?!,” you may be asking. Usually activists shy away from investing in so-called “sin” stocks, looking instead for companies and mutual funds that promote positive societal change. And these gun shares haven't made a lot of money for their stockholders; the New York Stock Exchange reported Sturm, Ruger & Co. fell from $66.85 to $41.56 in a year, while American Outdoor Brands Company—the maker of Smith & Wesson firearms—fell from $14.83 to $6.01. So if it wasn’t to make a fortune in the stock market, why did we do it? Because we want these companies to stop the irresponsible manufacture, distribution, and sale of these deadly weapons, and owning shares in the companies gave us a voice in their decision-making.
The Preventing Gun Violence (PGV) Task Force was formed in January 2016 in response to the growing number of shootings that had occurred in our schools, communities and streets. The horror of Sandy Hook lies deep in the memory of Connecticut’s people. And we continue to be affected both by other mass shootings and by the almost daily gun violence—in our country, cities, and neighborhoods—that is rarely covered by the mass media. Our task force’s role includes advocating on a state and national level for common sense gun safety legislation, including the Connecticut legislature’s recent passage of four gun safety laws; providing internal education for USNH members on gun violence; and sponsoring community-wide educational forums. However, to have a greater impact in our community, we needed partners.
Shortly after our task force’s formation, USNH became interested in Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut (CONECT)—our state’s affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), our nation’s longest-standing network of local faith- and community-based organizations. After a period of discernment, where we built one-on-one relationships and held salient discussions among members, the Unitarian Society of New Haven voted to join CONECT—committing a portion of our budget to the organization. Now, in community with other congregations, we address issues such as counteracting the effects of mass incarceration of people of color through the Clean Slate initiative; protecting the rights of DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants; providing adequate mental healthcare and affordable insurance coverage; and importantly for the focus of our task force, preventing gun violence through CONECT’s Do Not Stand Idly By campaign.
Do Not Stand Idly By (DNSIB) focuses on both local and national concerns. For example, CONECT successfully petitioned to revoke a local bar’s liquor license when regular disruptions in the neighborhood led to the shooting death of an innocent bystander. Candidates for state and local offices appear before large CONECT assemblies to respond to issues. Nationally, CONECT’s parent organization, the IAF, expands our impact by promoting safe-gun technology. DNSIB has formed a consortium of state and local public officials for the purpose of:
Expanding the availability and use of reliable gun-security devices among law enforcement officers, as well as civilian gun owners, in order to reduce gun theft and accidental or unauthorized shootings; and
Improving the standards and practices within the gun industry’s distribution system in order to reduce the flow of guns into the secondary market.
Partnering nationally and acting locally led us to the second of these priorities, prompting our decision to buy shares in two gun companies. Given our CONECT beliefs, our UU principles, and our own moral scruples, this was not an easy step to take. However, Do Not Stand Idly By seeks to challenge the companies that make and sell guns to reduce the carnage that kills more than 90 Americans each day. In 2018, DNSIB supported shareholder resolutions presented at the fall stockholders’ meetings of Sturm, Ruger & Co and of American Outdoor Brands (AOBC) requiring these firearm companies to issue reports detailing their efforts to:
- monitor events of gun violence associated with its products,
- research safer gun products, and
- assess the impact of gun violence on their reputation and finances.
Consequently, members of the Preventing Gun Violence Task Force and DNSIB purchased minimal shares in the companies, and—as you might imagine—we “reluctant shareholders” voted in support of the resolutions.
In September 2018, our congregation hosted a get-together for fellow activists to “attend” the live virtual meeting of the AOBC stockholders. And we erupted in cheers as the resolution was approved! (The resolution had already been approved by Sturm, Ruger & Co. shareholders in May.) Ultimately, both companies produced the required reports; you can read Ruger’s and AOBC’s for yourself. The reports are as vapid and perfunctory as you might expect—evidence of the companies’ reluctance to engage meaningfully on these issues.
This past September, we supported a similar proposal submitted to American Outdoor Brands “requesting the company develop a human rights policy.” In response, AOBC issued an extraordinary, strongly worded letter to shareholders urging a “No” vote on the resolution. This time, the resolution failed; but it is abundantly clear that firearm companies can no longer do business as usual, and they are aware that advocacy organizations and the public will continue calling them to account.
A core tenet of the Unitarian Society of New Haven's mission is to be a faith community that "cultivates transformative connections and creates a more just world.” It is precisely when we are in partnership with diverse, grassroots organizations that our voice joins with others to have a meaningful impact on the many social, economic, and political issues affecting our communities. Locally and nationally—in partnership with CONECT, the IAF, and its Do Not Stand Idly By campaign—we will continue living out our Unitarian Universalist principles by taking action to reduce the scourge of gun violence.