Using Wall Street clout to tackle gun violence

While rallies and protests continue to ring out as the voice of gun violence prevention, activists have also leveraged legislation and policy as pathways to change. Now the AFT is calling on Wall Street leaders to join the fight and use their power to urge gun manufacturers to stop making military-style assault weapons for general purchase.

How? By discouraging investment in companies whose products perpetuate gun violence.

In its newly released “Ranking Asset Managers” report, the AFT has created a watch list of investment managers that invest millions of dollars in companies that make assault weapons. Like other socially responsible investment tools, the list will help investors avoid funding entities that run counter to their beliefs—in this case, it will help them avoid paying for the kinds of weapons that have been used in ongoing violence in our cities and in mass shootings at schools and other public places. The report offers information for pension fund trustees, and it calls on asset managers to evaluate risks associated with investing in gun manufacturers and to engage in meaningful action, such as adopting policies that mitigate the safety risks assault weapons pose.

The release of the report comes days before the April 20 anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Since that time, 200 students have been killed in school and 187,000 students have been affected by school shootings.

“We have a gun violence epidemic in our country, and our children and their teachers are caught in the crosshairs of this public health emergency,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Educators, parents and students need safe and welcoming schools, and educators have a right to assume their deferred wages are not being invested in the companies that make the military-style assault weapons used to injure and kill them and their students in countless school shootings.”

Weingarten adds, “When companies produce a dangerous product that creates a national public health and safety crisis, that company becomes a high-risk investment and people have the right to know. This report is about exposing that risk and providing pension trustees and investment managers with the tools they need to demand meaningful action.”

Real possibilities, more action needed 

The report highlights actions several pension funds have taken to reduce their risk exposure. It also calls on all investors to “use their power to compel those gun manufacturers to take meaningful action to address these risks.” Most importantly, it creates a list of specific steps pension funds and financial institutions can take to mitigate their risks, including signing a gun safety code of conduct and limiting—or putting stricter stipulations on—their relationships with gun manufacturers. The report identifies Amalgamated Bank, Citigroup, Bank of America and several states’ public pension systems as institutions that have all taken steps toward this goal, and it names other financial institutions and public pension systems that have not yet acted in response to the gun violence epidemic.

One of those states identified as having failed to act is Florida, where the public employee retirement system invests in all three publicly traded gun-makers, including American Outdoor Brands, which made the weapon used at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to take the lives of 17 Floridians. Yet Florida teachers and other public employees have no seat at the table to help assess the risk presented by investing in gun manufacturers. Their only option is to appeal directly to Gov. Rick Scott. On the other hand, in many states, notably California and New York, pension fund trustees representing teachers and school staff have pushed their pension funds to engage with gun manufacturers on meaningful change, evaluate risk or divest from them entirely. The report urges trustees to continue to consider those options.

Weighing the risks in the classroom and in the board room

“Teacher trustees face a painful dichotomy between the classroom and the boardroom,” says Jay C. Rehak, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund Board of Trustees and chair of the AFT Pension Trustees Council. “We’re on the front line in schools and face the daily reality that gun-related deaths are the third-leading cause of death for the kids in our classrooms. It would be tempting to base investment strategy on that emotional connection, but we don’t have that luxury.

“We’re fiduciaries, and we have to speak to our investment managers in language they understand,” he continues. “As cold or difficult as that sounds, that’s what we do. A pension fund weighs and balances investment risk, and the bottom line is that investing in weapons manufacturers involves intolerable reputational, regulatory and statutory risks. That’s why we divested from assault weapons manufacturers in 2013, and it’s why we continue to ask our managers tough questions and hold our fund managers accountable for following this policy.”

After outreach from the AFT, four investment managers—Fidelity, Vanguard, Dimensional Fund Advisors and Voya—with more than $8.3 trillion in assets under management said they would engage with gun manufacturers regarding their concerns.

“Whether investors welcome it or not, society’s expectations are shifting,” Weingarten says. “The action we’ve seen from investors in public and private pension funds, as well as large institutional investors, is a start, because we all have a role to play in protecting our country from gun violence.

“We can no longer allow the NRA to prevent us from taking the same actions we take with cars, food, medication and other products to ensure safety. If the car industry were allowed to behave the same way we allow the NRA to behave, we’d be driving around without seatbelts, airbags or speed limits. And while we respect the Second Amendment, rights come with responsibility. I doubt the founders, in an era of muskets, could fathom the kind of assault weapons being produced and sold on the streets today.”

The AFT has a long history of demanding transparency from the investment community: The vast majority of its 1.7 million members participate in defined benefit pension plans, whose assets exceed $3 trillion.


Read the full report.

[AFT Media Affairs]