Pension Funds Under Pressure To Sell Off Investments In Gun-Makers Since the mass killing at a Parkland, Fla., school this month, many teachers have called on funds to sell their stakes in gun-makers. But some fund managers say that may not lead to industry change.

Pension Funds Under Pressure To Sell Off Investments In Gun-Makers

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Many teachers across the country are calling on their state pension funds to sell their stakes in gun manufacturers. The teachers say they don't want their retirement money invested in these companies. But many people, including those sympathetic to the cause, doubt that divestment will bring about the policy changes activists seek. NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Many state pension funds investing on behalf of public employees and teachers own shares in firearms makers. They do so primarily because those stocks are included in index funds that pensions invest in.

California Treasurer John Chiang wants that to change. He sits on the boards of his state's two largest pension funds, CalPERS for public employees and CalSTRS for teachers. He's urging pensions across the country to sell off their investments in gunmakers and gun retailers.

JOHN CHIANG: We could make a clear and powerful signal that the action by Congress is heartless. It's imponderable, and there are people who want to make sure that kids aren't losing their lives.

NOGUCHI: In 2015, following another school mass shooting, CalSTRS - California State Teachers' Retirement Fund (ph) - sold off its stake in publicly traded gun makers, including Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brands, formerly Smith and Wesson. Christopher Ailman is CalSTRS' chief investment officer.

CHRISTOPHER AILMAN: After the Sandy Hook disaster, our board took a look at particularly firearms and decided there were certain companies that made firearms that were already illegal in the state of California and felt that that regulation may expand and hurt those companies. And so we divested of them.

NOGUCHI: He says it was a financial decision, not a moral one. The fund surmised gun manufacturers were not going to do well in the future, so it sold its shares. Over the decades, CalSTRS has divested from other industries, including tobacco and coal. In each instance, Ailman says it did so because it anticipated stricter regulation, which would hurt those companies' sales. It might be surprising, but in each case, the fund's decision to sell had zero impact on the target company's products or strategy.

AILMAN: We had to write them a letter and tell them we no longer own their stock and wouldn't in the future. And I can tell you, they don't care.

NOGUCHI: He says it's important for the public to understand selling shares is not a proxy for policy change.

AILMAN: I care about many of these issues personally, very deeply and want to bring about social change, and I just am frustrated that activists are wasting their time focusing in on this as a mechanism when it's not effective.

NOGUCHI: Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, argues boycotts are probably more effective at exerting economic pressure. She says the #BoycottNRA campaign is a start but thinks it should include a broad consumer boycott of retailers that have lax policies on gun sales.

AVERY GARDINER: If Big 5 or Camping World or DICK'S Sporting Goods won't adopt sensible practices related to selling guns, then people shouldn't buy their soccer cleats and footballs and other equipment at those stores either.

NOGUCHI: That would affect those companies' profitability, she says, whereas investors who sell off their shares simply lose their rights as shareholders.

GARDINER: One of those rights is to get information about the company. Another is to attend an annual meeting and vote for the directors. Shareholders can introduce shareholder resolutions. They can inspect the books and records of companies. So those are rights that investors might forgo if they decided to divest out of gun companies.

NOGUCHI: And so far, few pensions are doing so, says Alex Brown, research manager for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

ALEX BROWN: The markets today are global. And generally, for every seller, there's a willing buyer.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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