How Gun Divestment Advocates Are Reacting to the Orlando Shooting

Stock value for weapons manufacturers spiked following the worst mass shooting in US history. We asked some ethical investing campaigners how they are responding.

by Sarah Berman
Jun 14 2016, 5:00pm

An AR-15, like the one pictured above, was used in the Orlando mass shooting. Photo via Flickr user Bill Bradford

The whole world is still reeling in the wake of the mass shooting at a queer nightclub in Orlando: 49 people killed by an act motivated by hate, made easier by some of the weakest gun restrictions in the developed world.

From the outside looking in, the situation can feel pretty hopeless. The 95 percent of the globe that isn't American can't vote there, and some US politicians' apparent allergy, even to modest safety reforms, can make it seem like nothing will change anyway.

This is the kind of sentiment that gun divestment advocates like Mark Glaze say they're trying to tap into in order to turn the situation around. When Congress won't budge, the logic goes, at least you can vote with your money.

"At times like these, everybody is looking for something they can do," Glaze told VICE. Glaze's organization, the US-based Campaign to Unload, helps workers move their retirement funds out of gun manufacturing. "If you get yourself out of gun stocks, it's not the only thing you can do, but it's the thing most likely to get the attention of gun makers."

As an example, Glaze cites the gun lobby's past opposition to (and eventual defeat of) a universal gun background check bill closely following the Newtown massacre, the 2012 shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead. "We think putting financial pressure on the industry might give them the proper motivation to support these kinds of reasonable measures that would save lives," he said.

Glaze is part of a constellation of far-flung activists on this issue who have targeted all kinds of funds and financial institutions, including Canadian banks. Among them are mayors, universities, tech startups, and rapper Snoop Dogg. VICE reached out to a few of them to see how they're reacting to the Orlando tragedy.

The first thing they're seeing, Glaze explained, is an immediate spike in gun sales and investment. Glaze said he and others expected it—the same trend followed several rashes of gun violence including the San Bernardino massacre in December. This time, shares for Smith & Wesson jumped 11.6 percent on Monday, while Sturm, Ruger & Co saw a 10.7 percent spike, according to Reuters. Both of these publicly traded companies make versions of the semiautomatic AR-15 used in the Orlando shooting.

"There are two things going on there," Glaze said of the companies' rallying stock price. "First, there's a natural tendency, when there's a mass shooting or riot, for people to want to protect themselves. So they buy guns. There's also a tendency of gun enthusiasts, when they think the government is going to bring in new gun control measures, to go out and buy more guns before it happens." On top of all that, Wall Street investors anticipate the extra sales and move money accordingly.

But people moving in gun divestment circles are also seeing a recent spike in interest, according to the co-founder of a month-old tech startup that analyzes US stock funds and aids ethical investing. Michael Shilman of the app Goodbye Gun Stocks, which is affiliated with Campaign to Unload, said they've seen an uptick in activity since Sunday. "We're encouraged that people are paying attention, but sickened that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to get people interested," he told VICE.

According to Shilman's analysis, one in five US stock funds are invested in gun companies. He explained that the app he and co-founder Keywon Chung developed allows users to explore more than 12,000 investment accounts and screen for retail gun makers and sellers.

Since launching in May, users have performed about 20,000 "fund tests." But Shilman said it gets trickier if you want to specifically target some of the worst weapons makers. For example, not all companies that make versions of the AR-15 are publicly traded. Of about a dozen that do, including Colt, Bushmaster, ArmaLite, Smith & Wesson, and Sturm, Ruger & Co, only the last two are available divestment targets.

That's where more creative tactics come in. New York City public advocate Letitia James has fought to cut off funds to gun makers on many fronts, including one ongoing campaign to stop TD Bank from loaning money to Smith & Wesson, maker of the assault rifles used in the San Bernardino massacre. The Canadian bank's $280 million loan in 2015 represents just under half the company's net sales. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, her office is keeping a close eye on which manufacturers may be linked to the tragedy, and continuing to explore other financial institutions.

Though many weapons divestment advocates are mostly focused on the US market, Glaze and others stress you don't have to live there to do it. In fact, much of our investments north of the border are tied in with the same companies. Canada's Pension Plan, for example, has $3 million invested in Sturm, Ruger & Co, according to the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

With this in mind, Glaze says he's hopeful campaign work following the Orlando massacre will turn tides at home and abroad. "There's no question there will be a focused attempt to get people to put money where their mouth is," he said, "and if taken to scale, it can make a difference."

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