Pensions funds are reconsidering investments in gun manufactures

By Michael Gormley

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 7:03 p.m. MST

Jeanne Walker of Newtown walks through an overflowing memorial to the shooting victims in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Dec. 14, and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children, before killing himself. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — From California to New York, teacher and public-worker retirement funds are reconsidering their investments in gun makers and confronting an uncomfortable fact: Their pensions have supported the manufacture of deadly weapons, in some cases the same type of gun used in the Connecticut school shooting.

For years, the gun industry has been a reliable investment, attracting tens of millions of dollars from some of the nation's largest retirement funds. The firearms business has been strong, driven by relaxed laws for carrying concealed handguns and by buyers who feared that tighter gun restrictions were more likely under President Obama.

But after the bloodbath in Connecticut, the practice is under review in at least four states, including two of the most populous, California and New York.

Although the amount of money involved is relatively small compared with the size of the pension funds, it has raised questions about the social responsibilities of huge retirement systems that invest on behalf of millions of American workers.

"It's a bad investment to put money behind companies that put military-grade weapons on our streets and refuse to take responsibility for the outcome," said New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. "We should not be giving capital to an industry that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans each year ... it's our moral responsibility."

New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who has sometimes wielded the state's $150.1 billion pension fund to urge companies to change their practices, is now reviewing nearly $12 million invested in firearms companies, which have seen their stocks plummet since the attack.

If they decide to dump the investments, the process is more complicated than merely liquidating stocks. Fund managers are required by law to invest in profitable companies, often without any specific power to consider social or ethical issues.

The California State Teachers' Retirement System announced Tuesday that it would review investments in the national and international firearms business.

That system had invested $600 million in the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which on the same day put up for sale the gun maker known as Freedom Group International, manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15 military-style rifle, the weapon Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The California retirement fund also owns shares of Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., two publicly traded gun manufacturers. Neither company responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

The New York State Teachers' Retirement System holds nearly $3.4 million in Sturm Ruger & Co. and nearly $3 million in Olin Corp, which manufacturers Winchester arms.

Other gun makers, such as Sig Sauer and Colt, are privately held and even though regular investors generally can't invest in private companies, pension funds often do.

In Pennsylvania, the teachers' pension fund reacted quickly, contacting Cerberus about the Freedom Group even before the equity firm announced it was selling the gun maker.

The Pennsylvania fund has less than $2 million invested in Cerberus, and those holdings will soon be liquidated, an official said. Although the fund has no social investment policy, its board members became concerned after the Connecticut attack.

Freedom Group has lost money in four of the last five years but claims to be the biggest maker of "modern sporting rifles," the industry's term for military-style weapons. It estimates the market for those weapons has grown 27 percent a year from 2007 through 2011.

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