Episcopal Church eyes investing in gun manufacturers to press for greater gun safety

December 14, 2018
Smith & Wesson

Episcopalians join a interfaith group of demonstrators outside a Smith & Wesson facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 14. Photo: Victoria Ix/Diocese of Western Massachusetts

[Episcopal News Service] Shareholder advocacy is nothing new for the Episcopal Church. With an investment portfolio worth about $400 million, the church has long used some of those investments used to influence companies based on Christian principles and General Convention resolutions that set church policies and priorities.

What’s new is one of the investment tactics the church plans to implement in the new year to address gun violence.

General Convention passed a resolution in July that calls on Executive Council’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility to invest in gun manufacturers to give the church a new voice in how those companies do business. The goal: “to minimize lethal and criminal uses of their products.”

“We’ve never purposely gone out and bought [shares in] what we’d consider a bad actor in order to press the company to change behavior,” said Brian Grieves, the outgoing chair of the committee, which oversees the church’s shareholder advocacy.

The resolution, B007, was proposed by Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher, a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, who will take over for Grieves as committee chair in January. Fisher’s diocese is home to the headquarters of Smith & Wesson in Springfield, and in March he participated in a rally outside the gun manufacturer led by high school students in the wake of a deadly high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Fisher acknowledged a “sense of frustration” among anti-gun violence advocates in response to Congress’ inaction. “The federal government is doing nothing about the public health crisis of gun violence,” he said. “So where can the church engage this big issue?”

Shareholder advocacy already has produced results on the issue, such as the decision by Dick’s Sporting Goods in February to stop selling assault rifles at its Field & Stream stores and to stop selling any guns to customers under 21. The Episcopal Church, as a shareholder, was involved in the effort to pressure the chain based on the Sandy Hook Principles, named after the school in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 students and six educators were gunned down six years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012.

The Dick’s shareholder effort was aided by a coalition called Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, or ICCR, an organization to which the Episcopal Church belongs that helps religious organizations pool their shareholder power. The group has recently worked with other of its members to do what General Convention urged: buy stock in a gun manufacturing company to influence corporate behavior. Eleven Roman Catholics organizations invested in Sturm, Ruger & Co. and in May were able to pass a shareholder resolution requiring the company to produce a report documenting how it is mitigating the harmful effects of its products.

Fisher said the Episcopal Church intends to take its cue from ICCR and base its advocacy with gun manufacturers on principles developed by an anti-gun violence campaign called Do Not Stand Idly By.

Such efforts aren’t opposed to gun ownership or the Second Amendment, Fisher said. “We’re really taking the approach of, why can’t gun companies act like car companies? Car companies are already trying to make their cards safer. … That’s good business practice. Why can’t gun companies go down the same path?”

That’s a worthwhile case to make to those companies, said the Rev. Rosalind Hughes, a Cleveland-area priest who has been vocal and active in the fight against gun violence, but she isn’t sure investments are the best way to make that case.

“My personal feeling is that I would prefer that we were not investing in the manufacture of guns in the first place,” said Hughes, rector at Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. She favors stepping up lobbying efforts to pass stricter background checks, an end to gun-show loopholes and other reform measures. Bishops United Against Gun Violence has backed such measures as well.

“The fact that we’re talking about this on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting doesn’t escape my notice,” Hughes told Episcopal News Service. “And the idea that the best that we can do is to invest in the manufacture of more guns in order to influence the landscape of guns in this country that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Grieves, who will remain on the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility after stepping down as chair, describes actively investing in such companies as just one of the alternatives available to the church as it pursues a range of policy goals.

“One size does not fit all,” he said. “It’s a strategic decision, and we’re going to have to look at how we arrive at those particular positions.”

Even if this approach gets results on gun safety, it may not be the best approach toward one of the church’s other priorities, which include climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indigenous people’s rights, corporate board diversity and ending human trafficking.

The church already owns shares in Caterpillar and Motorola, for example, and for years has been pressing those two companies to address human rights concerns related to their contracts with Israel in the occupied territories.

“The purpose is to engage in dialogue and try to get the company to move toward making a change in its behavior,” Grieves said.

General Convention, however, stopped short of approving a blanket divestment in Israel, which some critics of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories have called for. Instead, bishops and deputies passed a resolution that calls on Executive Council to establish a “human rights screen” to determine the criteria that would justify divesting from specific companies based on their track records on human rights.

The church also maintains so-called no-buy lists against investing in tobacco companies, for-profit prison companies and companies that earn more than a specific percentage of their business as military contractors.

Fisher noted that affirmative investing is another approach the Episcopal Church takes, such as its support for companies doing good work in the Palestinian territories. The Bank of Palestine is one example.

On climate change, the church seeks out investments aligned with its interest in caring for God’s creation. Fisher’s diocese took the additional step in 2015 divesting from companies that profit from fossil fuels.

It’s one thing to divest from oil to invest that money in alternative fuels, Fisher said, but that approach doesn’t work well in addressing gun violence. “What would you invest in that would impact the public health crisis of gun violence?”

By investing in gun manufacturers, then, the church and its partners may be able to persuade those companies take steps that will reduce the number of gun deaths. One example would be to adopt technology like fingerprint recognition, familiar to any iPhone user, that would lock guns for everyone except the owner.

“Even if you don’t get shareholder resolutions passed, if you stay with it long enough … people start to take notice,” Fisher said. “It’s not something that gets ignored. It gets addressed.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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