Episcopal Church shareholder activism works to change gun sale practices

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 28, 2018

Dick’s Sporting Goods said Feb. 28 that it would stop selling assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and would no longer sell firearms to anyone younger than 21. Photo: Dick’s Sporting Goods

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council in late January authorized its Committee on Corporate and Social Responsibility to join an attempt to convince Dick’s Sporting Goods to abide by the Sandy Hook Principles developed to stem the tide of gun violence.

A little more than a month later, the Pittsburgh-based retailer announced Feb. 28 that it would stop selling assault weapons at its 35 Field & Stream stores.

The company had removed them from all Dick’s stores after the Sandy Hook massacre. The company also said it would no longer sell firearms to anyone younger than 21, and it would no longer sell high-capacity magazines. And, Dick’s said, it has never and will never sell bump stocks that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire more rapidly.

Dick’s also called on elected officials to ban assault-style firearms, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks; raise the legal minimum age to purchase firearms to 21; require universal background checks that include relevant mental health information and previous interactions with law enforcement; build what it called a “complete universal database of those banned from buying firearms; and close the private sale and gun show loophole that waives the necessity of background checks. All of the company’s actions and its message to government officials fit into the Sandy Hook Principles.

The shareholder activism of the Episcopal Church and other religious institutional investors was not the sole cause of Dick’s decision, but those involved say it had some influence on a company that was considering a change.

The Episcopal Church does not invest in gun manufacturers, but it does own stock in Dick’s Sporting Goods. The Church Pension Fund does not hold any direct investments in companies that manufacture or sell guns, according to C. Curtis Ritter, the head of corporate communications. And, unlike some investors, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (the name under which the Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission) has never purchased stock for the sole purpose of engaging in a shareholder action, the Rev. Brian Grieves, chair of council’s Corporate and Social Responsibility Committee, or CCSR, told Episcopal News Service. And, both Grieves and Ritter said they are not are aware of any indirect investments in these types of companies in the pooled funds in which their organizations invest.

However, the church was involved in the effort to convince Dick’s to change. After Executive Council approved the committee’s involvement, Grieves said, it joined with five Roman Catholic groups to engage Dick’s Sporting Goods in a dialogue about its gun sales.

That effort actually began in July 2017 when a representative of Mercy Investment Services Inc. wrote to Ed Stack, Dick’s chairman and chief executive officer, asking the company to report on actions, if any, it had taken “on elements such as those based on Sandy Hook Principles.” Mercy is the asset management program for the Sisters of Mercy and its ministries.

The retailer did not respond to the letter, Grieves said, and so Mercy, four other Roman Catholic religious orders and the DFMS filed a shareholder resolution. The filing occurred via the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an organization to which both the DFMS and the Church Pension Group belong that helps religious organizations pool their shareholder power.

“They finally responded to that, and were agreeable to a dialogue,” Grieves said.

“It was a very productive and very good meeting, and they seemed to be very interested in having good procedures in place for how they sell these weapons. And so, in order to continue that dialogue, we agreed to withdraw” the shareholder resolution, he explained.

Then, the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, happened. Stack said that the company founded by his father had sold a gun to 19-year-old Nicholas Cruz, the suspect in the shooting that left 17 students and adults dead. That gun was not used in the school shooting but, according to Stack, that knowledge moved the company to action.

William McKeown, a CCSR member, said that it is important to remember that “the community of investors of faith has been working on gun safety for years.” The shareholder resolution with Dick’s Sporting Goods “was just one small piece of a wider effort, and no one thought then that it would be — or thinks now that it was — anything like a decisive act.

“But it helped. The lesson: this work is worth doing.”

McKeown cautioned that, despite the Dick’s Sporting Goods decision, more work needs to be done, and Grieves agreed, saying that an area where investors can be immediately effective has arisen in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre.

“As investors, we also need to thank and support those companies that are severing ties to the NRA,” such as rental car agencies, insurance companies and airlines, he said. “The pushback on them is and will be fierce, and we need to let them know we have their back on their actions.”

“We own stock in a lot of those companies,” Grieves added.

While many companies initially won praise for their actions, a backlash is developing. For instance, Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican with an A-plus grade from the National Rifle Association, is leading an effort to get that state to rescind a $50 million sales tax exemption on jet fuel. The exemption was instituted in hopes that Atlanta-based Delta Airlines would add more routes and thus help Atlanta attract more business.

Shareholder engagement is nothing new for the Episcopal Church

CCSR’s roots were at least partially planted during the effort to use the world’s economic power to break apartheid’s hold on South Africa. In 1985, the General Convention directed the Executive Council to divest itself of all holdings in companies doing business in South Africa and Namibia and urged all other church investors to do the same.

Since then, the work of the variously named committee that is now known as CCSR has waxed and waned, but some Episcopalians have always believed, McKeown said, that the church can leverage its investments to advocate for the things in which it believes. The Episcopal Church has about $454 million in investments, and the Church Pension Fund controls about $13.2 billion. Joining with other faith-based investors, they focus on certain areas of concern.

The Church Pension Fund concentrates on environmental sustainability, human rights violations and corporate executive and board diversity. The DFMS, through the Corporate and Social Responsibility Committee, currently concentrates on product and gun safety, human rights, indigenous rights, climate change and environmental sustainability, Israel-Palestine issues and corporate accountability and board diversity.

The CCSR does not make any investment decisions. The Executive Council Investment Committee oversees the DFMS’ investment activity. Grieves and McKeown said the CCSR knows it can only act within the bounds of the policies set by General Convention and through the church’s current investments.

While the Episcopal Church does not invest in gun manufacturers as a matter of course, it does not have a specific prohibition against such investments. There are 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.

The DFMS treasurer’s office says it invests with what it calls “a trinity of avoidance, affirmative action, and advocacy” in mind. Avoidance means not investing in companies whose activities are contrary to the church’s social and moral values. Affirmative investing involves investing in institutions that can provide financial resources to underserved communities. Advocacy centers on voting proxies and activism that “focus on constructively influencing corporate behavior.”

The work ahead

“The corporate world for once is leading the way while our legislators try to have it both ways,” Grieves said. “As an ethical investor, the church must engage the work of socially responsible investing. It, too, is part of our witness in the Jesus Movement.”

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations is working hard on Capitol Hill, Grieves said. On Feb. 28, it issued an action alert for Episcopalians to advocate for an assault weapons ban.

The CCSR sometimes continues to leverage the church’s investments even after the majority of a stock is sold for portfolio management reasons. Grieves said the committee can ask to retain the minimum value of shares needed to continue to monitor a company’s activities and engage with its operations.

Grieves’ committee is due to meet again in late March, and he said the members will discuss next steps on gun control issues. It might suggest that Executive Council consider making a statement about following on the Dick’s Sporting Good action and the decisions by other companies to sever ties with the NRA, he said.

It might also suggest a similar statement by the General Convention during its July meeting in Austin, Texas. That convention’s Committee on Stewardship and Socially Responsible Investing would likely consider any resolutions dealing with shareholder advocacy and other issues surrounding those types of investments.

McKeown cautioned that no one part of advocacy will result in change.

“I don’t think this is the way to save the world,” he said of shareholder engagement, even though he is deeply involved in the effort. “It is a useful approach because … everything is monetized and financialized so these investments provide access points for influencing decision-making and influencing behavior and influencing policy.

“But they are not the only ones by any means. If you just relied on these, you wouldn’t get very far. They have to be used with everything else that everybody can think of, including marching on the streets and writing to your congressman and running for election and making contributions to good causes whether they are political or not and doing your own work in your neighborhood.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (10)

  1. P.J. Cabbiness says:

    The transformation of the Episcopal Church from a Christian denomination to a leftist political action organization is amazing! I am curious if there is a manifesto being written to replace the Bible and the B.C.P.

  2. Larry Waters says:

    The lack of security at the Florida school was the reason that the murderer was able to access classrooms. In a previous communication, I stated that my grammar school locked doors and no one was able to access classrooms except by going to the principal’s office, which was also locked. Stop blaming the gun- blame the administrators at these various schools where there is no security. Totally concur with P. Cabbiness’ statement that our EC has turned into a leftist political organization!

  3. Doug Desper says:

    No one needs to own a weapon that can create mass casualties in a matter of minutes. When we live in a society we have to adopt self-restraint in our public interactions and choices to compensate for disturbed persons who will abuse freedom. So we don’t get to own grenades, flamethrowers, mines, or bazookas. Likewise NO one needs to own mass casualty firepower like semi automatic weapons changed into automatic weapons by a butt stock change.

    As for the Florida school shooter the police were called to his address countless times. The Baker Rule was available and not used wherein police or medical professionals could have intervened with a temporary psych hospitalization and confiscation of weapons. He was also on the radar at school and showed signs of disturbance. The “no arrest” policy for school-aged kids backfired when the shooter was found bringing knives and bullets to school. He wasn’t followed-up with an intervention at that early stage of illegal activity. Law officials, FBI, and school personnel all saw the signs of pain, home disintegration, and a tortured teenager’s mind — a disaster — and didn’t intervene. I’m glad that the Church wants high casualty weapons off the table, especially since every opportunity for intervention can clearly fail so miserably.

  4. M. J. Wise says:

    Retailers are free to sell whatever they do or don’t wish to sell, but this really seems like moral preening and signaling more than something that will actually make people safer. The US tried an “assault weapons” ban (a purely imagined classification invented by politicians so they they could say they Did Something back in the 1990’s) for a decade and saw no discernible safety benefit from it.

    Plus, anyone claiming the mantle of Episcopalian telling people to go shop at a particular store is just embarrassing. What a shallow, vain, and materialistic time we live in. The weird thing is, Dicks still sells guns, so if guns are the root of all evil, wouldn’t the socially responsible thing be to encourage them to patronize an outdoors or sporting goods establishment that does not sell guns at all…? Just sayin’, even if I was sympathetic to the politics, lionizing Dicks doesn’t make sense to me.

  5. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    The shareholder “activism” of the Episcopal Church does little more than feed the egos of self-important do-gooders and in fact may often ultimately cause real harm. South Africa and the divestment issue is a good example. Yes, apartheid may be gone but so is law and order, the country is in a real mess and many South African blacks clearly would be happier if with all its faults the old regime were back even though they dare not say so. As usual, the do-gooders are never willing to hold themselves accountable before they go on to the next cause celebre of the day.

  6. L Dreyer says:

    Thank you for this informative article about DFMS’ investing principles and the ongoing work of the CCSR
    It is up to each of us individually, and all of us as a body to exercise the promises of our baptismal vows and pursue the values embodied in our Marks of Mission as public and corporate citizens.

  7. S. J. Powell says:

    As one who uses the discounts from AARP, I can’t help but think of how many people would not bother to join AARP without those discounts. Loss of such discounts may sway gun-owners who don’t like the NRA’s political stance.

  8. M. J. Wise says:

    Cynthia, you might as well name names if you have evidence anyone here is a bot or from a “troll farm.” I honestly doubt anyone would bother.

  9. BD Howes says:

    What a proud group we’ve become! We’ve replaced laying on of hands with patting ourselves on the back. This pietistic swagger is shameful.

  10. Liz Benage says:

    I can’t believe what I’m reading. Since when is the Episcopal Church a political party. You wonder why Christian Church membership is down? When I read that my church is encouraging people to boycott the NRA or any other organization that is “Not what we consider the same as our political views” there is a problem. Jesus said, “Let the first one of you who hasn’t sinned throw the first stone”. Do you realize that the NRA membership is full of veterans, everyday citizens, and Christians? They teach gun safety courses, they have instructor training courses, and they to protect our second amendment. Granted I don’t always agree with their politics, but I am truly embarrassed by some of the politics coming out of my church leaders who should know better. Since when are we do gooders. We are supposed to be leaders who teach moral values including forgiveness. Instead we are blaming organizations who have nothing to do with the human being who uses a gun, knife, baseball bat, or even a pencil or pair of scissors to kill or injure someone else. The gun didn’t kill those children it was just an instrument used by someone to cause harm. I think the church should focus more on human beings who need help with mental illness, jobs, hunger, fear, loneliness, and any other malady we have in this world today. Investing money in chosen corporations, company’s, and other institutions should be left to the business community. Part of the church’s problem is getting out of Jesus teachings and focusing on your leaders ego’s and judgment of others. Who are we to judge others. We have forgotten how to be tolerant of others. We can’t change everything no matter how much we want to. There will always be evil. We have to be there and offer people hope. We have to be Christians and follow Jesus.

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