Of all the dithering delays plaguing Congress, the most maddening is its inability to do anything about gun violence. Nineteen months after the massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school, which was supposed to be the turning point on gun policy, Congress has done nothing. Meanwhile, by some estimates, 50,000 additional Americans have been killed by guns. No wonder frustrated citizens are going around Congress to focus on the gun industry itself.
The Campaign to Unload is a new initiative aimed at getting individuals and institutions to divest from gun company stocks that support the manufacture and sale of assault weapons. Some 51 million Americans hold 401(k)s or other retirement funds, and it’s a fair bet many don’t know exactly what they include. Taxpayer dollars and donations to nonprofits prop up pension funds and endowments that can be invested in activities that donors don’t support. Corporate interlocks make it difficult to tease apart the trouble spots: Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that controls Freedom Group — which manufactures the Bushmaster assault rifle used at Sandy Hook — also owns the seemingly innocuous Star Market, Shaw’s, and Steward Health Care System. What’s a responsible consumer to do?
Normally I’m skeptical about boycotts as a political tactic, because with few exceptions — the antiapartheid campaign for South African divestment most notably — they can feel like spitting against the wind. But the gun divestment campaign has had some surprising successes. Last fall Rhode Island’s pension fund dumped a $20 million investment in a private equity fund with a stake in a gun distributor. That came after California’s public pension fund, the country’s largest, divested from two firearms firms. In February, Occidental College, in Los Angeles, became the first university to ban investments in companies manufacturing military-style assault weapons.
Here in Massachusetts, treasurer Steven Grossman ordered a review of the state’s pension portfolio in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and reported that $27.8 million was invested in the gun industry — less than 1 percent of the total. As with other divestment questions, Grossman let the Legislature decide whether his office should be required to sell the firearms stocks, but a bill doing so stalled this session. Still, Grossman himself supports divestment. “These are issues of moral responsibility,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and speak up for Massachusetts values.”
Ordinary citizens also have a role. Since the “Unload your 401(k)” campaign launched in late April, more than 10,000 people have checked their personal retirement accounts through the campaign’s website. Those who discover gun companies in their portfolios can sell, or ask their employers or unions to make different investment choices. “I believe as a consumer you do the best you can,” said Cathie Whittenburg of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the campaign’s partners. Foiled by inaction in Washington, she said, investing with a social conscience “is something I can do.”
John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, knows how difficult it is to make a dent in the profits of gun manufacturers, but he believes there is power in numbers. “There are more of us than there are of them,” he said. “If enough of us vote with our wallets, I really think we can change behavior.”
Particularly galling to Rosenthal is Cerberus, which promised just after Sandy Hook to sell its stake in Freedom Group. “We have determined to immediately engage in a formal process to sell our investment in Freedom Group,” it said in December 2012. Nothing ever came of the promise. Apparently there is some part of “immediately” that Cerberus doesn’t understand.
Rosenthal is now promoting a boycott of the local grocery chains in the Cerberus portfolio, hoping it will reconsider hanging on to Freedom Group. He explicitly conflates “guns, bread, and butter” in his plea to shoppers not to patronize familiar stores. The difficulty, he says, is getting a demoralized public to recognize that many small gestures can make a compelling statement.
The gun lobby — with its money, its influence, its cowed members of Congress — thrives on the perception that it is invincible. The Campaign to Unload is a creative strategy to puncture that notion. It gives the majority a voice. And that’s democracy’s most powerful weapon.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.