For gun-safety activists, a grim anniversary

John Rosenthal founded Stop Handgun Violence, an organization known for its billboard alongside the turnpike.
John Rosenthal founded Stop Handgun Violence, an organization known for its billboard alongside the turnpike.Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File 2013/Globe Staff

A grim anniversary arrives Thursday for gun-control activists: Exactly one year has passed since a gunman killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., in the deadliest shooting at a US high school.

Meanwhile, American Outdoor Brands Corp., maker of the Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle used in Parkland, seems more concerned about a different moment in its corporate history.

The Springfield company published a gun-safety report on Friday after being pushed to study the issue by shareholders. Parkland gets one mention in the 18-page body of the report — a reference to a spike in media coverage that occurred last March because of the shooting.


The company devotes more space to another event, one that took place 19 years ago — a time that apparently lives in infamy at its corporate offices. That was when the chief executive at the time, facing lawsuits over gun violence, decided to adopt sweeping safety measures in an agreement with the Clinton administration. Among those steps: incorporating “smart technology” to prevent anyone other than a gun’s owner from firing the weapon.

That decision, American Outdoor argues, “almost destroyed the Company.” The backlash was fierce. Sales plunged. The company reversed course under new management, but not before the business was “on the cusp of failure.” Its leadership seems determined not to let that happen again.

Flash forward to 2018. In September, shareholders endorsed a petition from the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary — working with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility — that called for the company to monitor violence involving Smith & Wesson products and to detail efforts to produce safer guns.

American Outdoor argues in its report that measures pushed by the proponents, such as implementing smart-gun technology, would tarnish the company’s reputation among gun buyers. In other words: If the nuns got their way, it would be 2000 all over again.


American Outdoor also cites the potential of future gun restrictions as “the ultimate risk” for investors. The company issued a statement calling its report a “good faith effort,” one that showed that protecting customers’ Second Amendment rights is paramount to its success.

In its defense, American Outdoor outlines problems with smart-gun technology, including unreliability and a perceived lack of demand in the market.

Another gunmaker, Sturm, Ruger & Co., cited similar concerns in a parallel report, also the result of a shareholder proposal backed by the Interfaith Center. Ruger, though, took a less hostile tone toward the New York nonprofit. (Both companies also listed many safety measures that are already in place.)

The ICCR’s chief executive, Josh Zinner, was disappointed by the American Outdoor report’s dismissive tone. His argument: It’s better for long-term shareholders to take a proactive approach in curbing violence. He had hoped this exercise would be a springboard for a corporate discussion about improving firearm safety. So much for that idea.

Activist John Rosenthal says American Outdoor just went through the motions and didn’t give the topic the serious thought it deserves. The Boston-area developer is perhaps best known for the block-spanning gun-control billboards that adorned a garage overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike for years.

His current sign is smaller, to fit on a narrower garage nearby. It features Joaquin Oliver, one of the Parkland teens who died, and trumpets Massachusetts’ strong gun-safety laws. Rosenthal says he hopes Parkland was an inflection point for corporate America, helping to prompt companies such as REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods to rethink their approach to guns.


Rosenthal has another big sign on his mind now: He plans to join Joaquin’s parents — now vocal gun-control activists themselves — in Manhattan on Thursday to unveil a new billboard. It’s a safe bet that American Outdoor executives won’t be making the trip.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.