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What You Can Do About Guns When Leaders Fail Us // How Divestment Can Drive Change

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It’s a script we’ve all heard. Unhappy about children getting slaughtered at school and Black folks getting murdered at the grocery store? Vote! Unhappy that an illegitimate Supreme Court is about to gut Roe vs. Wade and take away women’s bodily autonomy? Vote! Unhappy that nothing is happening to address the climate crisis when we have only a few years left before catastrophic changes occur? Vote! Unhappy with any number of other unchecked injustices that only policymakers can address? Vote!

I’m sick of being told to vote.

I bet you’re sick of it, too.

We must vote, of course we must, but it’s not enough. Our own eyes tell us that. We’ve been voting this whole time, and things are only getting worse. So what else can we actually do? I wrote Wallet Activism exactly to answer this question, because voting is never enough. There’s always more we can do. We live in a system that tells us we’re powerless when, in truth, those in power are terrified that we’ll figure out exactly how powerful we actually are when we act collectively.

Capitalism causes a lot of problems, but it provides opportunities, too. If we can’t hurt companies with laws and regulations, we can hurt them through their profits and their share price. We can hurt them by ousting the people in charge. We can hurt them by making it impossible for them to hire and retain top talent. We can do all of that and more.

We’re here today after another horrible and absolutely preventable tragedy, so let’s talk about what we can do right now about guns. How can we actually make a difference on gun violence? By making a sustained and focused effort to divest from guns. What does that mean?

Divestment is the broad strategy of financially punishing those engaged in bad acts, using the tools of capitalism, to force them to change their ways.

Divestment has helped to topple Apartheid in South Africa and numerous corrupt regimes. It’s the main tool we have in the fight against fossil fuels that are the primary driver of the climate crisis. And it can work against guns. How does it work? Divestment aims to:

  • Hurt a company’s share price
  • Hurt a company’s profits
  • Make a company a pariah so talented people don’t want to work there

All of this makes it much harder for a company to get financing for its projects, and given that most corporations these days hold very little cash on hand and rely on financing, this act alone can shut a company down entirely by making it impossible for it to operate. (Financing is usually tied to share price, which is why Elon is now walking back his bluster about buying Twitter now that his Tesla shares are worth a lot less.) But hurting both share price and profits can also make a company default on its existing loans and get forced into bankruptcy, and it can make all the top talent flee. Divestment ultimately aims to punish bad actors from multiple angles so that they feel the pain on all sides and they either change their ways or they give up.

If you’re fired up to divest from guns, and to take other actions that make a real difference and don’t just serve to make you feel better, here’s how to get started.

Divest from guns in your portfolio

The gunmakers who make the military-grade weapons that we tend to shorthand as “AR-15-style guns” have enjoyed high profits in recent years along with huge bumps in their share price, including record highs. Even more horrifying, the New York Times just reported that gunmakers’ share prices tend to go up after mass shootings. They not only profit off the guns themselves, but they profit again when innocent people die. They are profiting right now, after the slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, and the one last week in Buffalo, New York.

To divest from guns in your own portfolio, start by scouring your funds for stocks of the gun and ammunition makers, and dump those stocks or trade for funds that exclude gun stocks. Here’s a great tool to help you streamline this process: gunfreefunds.org (or the related and more broad-reaching weaponfreefunds.org).

The stocks you’re looking for are:

  • Sturm Ruger (RGR)
  • Smith & Wesson (SWBI)
  • American Outdoor Brands (AOUT)
  • National Presto Industries (NPK)
  • AMMO Inc. (POWW)
  • Vista Outdoor (VSTO)
  • Axon Enterprise (AXON)
  • Olin Corporation (OLN)
  • Byrna Technologies (BYRN)
  • Taurus Armas (TASA3)

If you want to go farther, divest from other companies who sell guns, to make any business with the gun and ammo industry bad business. Think Big 5 Sporting Goods (BGFV), Sportsman’s Warehouse (SPWH), Academy Sports (ASO), Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS), which still sells guns even after pledging not to sell assault rifles, and Walmart (WMT).

And beware, if you’re a Vanguard devotee, as many are in financial independence land, that Vanguard is the second largest owner of basically every gun stock, and a bunch of these feature in Vanguard’s most popular fund offerings like the total stock market index fund, the small cap index fund, the extended market index fund, etc.

Also don’t assume that just because a fund is labeled ESG that it’s gun-free. I’ve written about the problems with ESG labels (hint: the label is completely unregulated, and ESG is also a shell game), but you need to research specifically whether the funds you own or are considering buying contain gun stocks.

Pressure institutions to divest from guns

While divesting on an individual level is important, it’s far more impactful if bigger entities divest. Think about institutions with whom you have a financial relationship like:

  • Financial institutions (banks, brokerages, etc.)
  • Your employer
  • University or college you give to or work for
  • State or local pension plan
  • Company pension plan

Large institutional investors can make an enormous difference in a company’s share price with a single divestment decision, but most institutions are fundamentally cowards. They look at the bottom line and nothing else. That’s why you need to push them. Speak up to the institutions you do business with, work for, give money to, or hope to draw a pension from one day, and tell them that you demand they divest from guns (and whether else you also want them to divest from, like fossil fuels).

After the Parkland shooting in Florida, I started a Change.org petition to get Vanguard to address its gun problem, and they actually changed their fund offerings shortly thereafter. Lots of people were demanding change, it wasn’t just me, but it’s proof that change can happen, we just need a lot more of it.

So start online petitions and enlist your neighbors and coworkers. Write op-eds and letters to the editor in your community, in alumni publications, etc. Post about the organizations investments on social media. Send letters based on the template on gunfreefunds.org. Do some digging and see what information you can find that will shock people into action, like the stat that teacher pension funds in 12 states are invested in gun stocks. Teachers!

Positive things are happening that we can hold up as examples – California teacher and public pension funds have divested from companies that make assault weapons, and other states are looking at similar measures – but none of it is enough, yet. Put the pressure on and don’t let up until all the institutions you have a financial relationship with are fully divested.

Become an activist shareholder

If you own shares of gunmakers, which you absolutely do if you hold standard market index funds, figure out how to go to the shareholder meetings and then get loud. Demand that gunmakers stop putting profits over lives and insist they stop making assault rifles. Organize protests outside of shareholder meetings. Most shareholders have never had to hear from the public on this, so get loud and make them squirm. Activist shareholders have succeeded in redirecting companies away from harmful acts, they have succeeded in getting activists voted onto boards of directors, and they have succeeded in ousting leadership. Everything is on the table, so bring the fight directly to the company and make them do better.

Call and email your elected leaders, and do it every day

Fundamentally, the fastest way we’ll see a drop in gun violence is if we can get the assault weapons ban put back in place and get common sense gun control reforms passed, and that requires action by policymakers. But voting isn’t the only way to make your voice heard. The offices of nearly all elected leaders don’t keep track of who is calling or emailing, but they do keep tallies of support and opposition for different bills and issues. So our goal has to be to push up the numbers of those demanding more regulation of guns so they can’t ignore us. When we’re silent, we let NRA dollars do all the talking, so speak up and do it as often as you can. Push those tallies and enlist your friends and family to do the same. We’re used to seeing inaction after mass shootings, but we don’t have to put up with that.

Call your two U.S. Senators, your U.S. Representative, your Governor, your state senator and your state representative (find them here), and tell them this:

I’m NAME, a constituent from STATE/CITY/ZIP, and I’m calling to demand REP’S NAME’s immediate leadership and support for common sense gun control measures like a total and permanent ban on assault rifles, enhanced universal background checks with no loop holes, a higher age restriction to buy weapons and ammunition, a seven-day waiting period, a red flag law, an end to gunmaker immunity from lawsuits, and a ban on high-capacity magazines. (That’s the evergreen version.)

Right now you can also add for senators, “I demand a senate vote on H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, and H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2021. I strongly urge Senator NAME to vocally support the passage of both bills.”

Feel free to add, “I do not vote for anyone who takes money from the NRA, period.” (The Brady Campaign has tallies of how much the NRA has “donated” to different politicians to buy their “thoughts and prayers” and inaction.)

NFTY has a slightly outdated but still helpful guide to calling your officials about gun control policies that’s also worth checking out.

Don’t buy guns and don’t work for a gunmaker

This probably goes without saying but… We will never get these companies to change their ways if we make them profitable and keep them running. Buying a handgun or a hunting rifle from a company that also makes assault rifles or weapons of war feeds the same evil machine, so don’t do it. Working for a gunmaker, even if it it’s in a different division from the one that makes assault rifles, is still helping to keep the company functioning. Refuse to play along.

A Note on Mental Health

For all those repeating the myth that “mental health issues” cause gun violence, that’s simply not true, and there’s ample research to prove it. Here is some information:

  • Though 20 percent of Americans at any given time, and 50 percent of all people at some point in their life (a rate consistent across other countries) have some form of mental illness, people with mental illness commit only 3 percent of violent crimes. (source: American Psychological Association and here)
  • According to the American Psychological Association, “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.” (source)
  • The biggest risks for committing gun violence against others are access to a gun (source), a history of violence including domestic violence (source), holding sexist and racist thoughts (source), and alcohol use (source). Not mental illness.
  • People with mental illness are much more likely than those in the general population to be victims of violence, especially interpersonal violence, not perpetrators of it. (source)
  • The politicians blaming mental health for our gun violence problems are also the politicians blocking expansions to Medicaid (see: Texas) that would make mental health treatment more accessible to millions of Americans. If they really believe mental illness is the cause of the violence (hint: they don’t), wouldn’t they do everything in their power to expand access to mental health care?

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