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Investors, Retailers Shy Away From Guns; Will It Last?

Dec 18, 2012
Originally published on December 18, 2012 5:19 pm

It's a nervous time for companies that make and sell guns.

On Tuesday, Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm, announced it was selling its stake in Freedom Group, maker of the American Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, which was used in the Newtown killings last Friday, along with other brands such as Remington.

"It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level," Cerberus said in a statement.

Also on Tuesday, Dick's Sporting Goods announced it will stop selling the Bushmaster, along with other modern rifles, "out of respect for the victims and their families," according to a corporate statement.

On Monday, Wal-Mart removed from its website a listing for a similar Bushmaster rifle, although it was still available in its stores.

"None of these companies want to be associated with this tragic event," says Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University. "By taking action now, they're showing they're aware of the damage that's been done."

Corporate CEOs themselves may be reacting like other individuals, with sympathy, regret and grief, King says. But he also notes that investors are uncertain about the prospects for new gun regulations.

The stock prices of major gun manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger & Co., whose products were not involved in Friday's shootings, have dropped sharply in recent days.

"This could be one of those cases where we might really see some change as a result of this event," says Lawrence Glickman, author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. "This seems to be some kind of tipping point where people who were uncomfortable but passive about the [gun] issue seem ready to take some kind of stand."

Investor Concern

Investors have to worry not just about the possibility of a renewed push for gun-control legislation, but lasting changes in societal attitudes, says Larry Chavis, a University of North Carolina economist.

Parents may have heightened concerns about gun safety for a long time, while individuals who might have casually been interested in guns as a potential hobby may be changing their minds.

But a more immediate question may be whether investors want to be associated with lethal weapons. California Treasurer Bill Lockyer on Monday asked staff to begin reviewing the state's portfolio and called publicly on California's massive pension funds to divest from companies that produce guns that aren't legally available in the state.

The California State Teachers' Retirement System has a $751.4 million stake in Cerberus.

"The tragic and devastating acts that took place Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut have prompted many in this country to call for change: To determine what we can do differently to help ensure the unthinkable never happens again," the state teachers pension fund said in a statement Tuesday. "In our case, CalSTRS investment staff immediately began reviewing our investments in private equity funds managed by Cerberus Capital Management."

Brand Damage By Association

It's not just investors who have to worry about their association with gun makers — it's retailers as well.

"No words can express the level of grief we all feel for the families of the Sandy Hook students, teachers and the Newtown community," Wal-Mart said in a statement. "We remain dedicated to the safe and responsible sale of firearms in areas of the country where they are sold. We understand that the country will be engaged in a broad discussion of these issues over the next several months."

It's their broader consumer base that Wal-Mart and Dick's are worried about, Chavis says. They are big gun sellers, but guns aren't at the heart of their businesses.

"It's partly a branding issue," says Glickman, who chairs the history department at the University of South Carolina. "They do not want to be associated with this in any way."

Major retail outlets have to worry about people who might come to their stores to buy diapers, electronics and ping-pong tables but are now skittish about guns — over the long term, as well as the current Christmas shopping season.

Allison Young, a 52-year-old homemaker in Manassas, Va., said she was horrified when she came across the gun section at a Wal-Mart and her son asked if they were real or toys.

She no longer goes there. "That's the reason I don't shop at Wal-Mart," she says. "A family store that sells guns."

Retailers would be wise to worry that that kind of attitude could turn into a broader backlash, Chavis says.

"You definitely wouldn't want to send a circular out advertising guns if you're Wal-Mart, certainly not in the next few weeks or months," he says.

Boycotts Unlikely

There's been a long history of consumer boycotts launched against gun makers in this country. Smith & Wesson was targeted back in the 19th century by the Knights of Labor in a dispute that had more to do with labor issues than its product line.

But Smith & Wesson was hit hard by a boycott a dozen years ago, after it reached an agreement with the Clinton administration to adopt gun safety measures in order to settle state and federal lawsuits. It laid off hundreds of workers in 2000, and its stock price and profits languished, although the company recovered over the course of the next several years.

There may not be a direct boycott of guns launched in the coming weeks and months. Those advocating tighter restrictions on guns aren't likely to be regular customers to begin with. "You can't boycott a product you're not buying anyway right now," says Fred Taub, president of Boycott Watch, a group that casts a skeptical eye on boycott campaigns.

Despite the current change in climate, gun sales aren't likely to suffer in the coming weeks. After recent highly publicized shootings, gun sales have gone up, whether because people were nervous about defending themselves, or they wanted to stock up as a hedge against potential restrictions.

Is It Different This Time?

And it's possible the current intense interest among the media and the public will soon shift elsewhere, allowing stock prices of gun makers to rebound. "It's not abnormal for companies to have quick declines and then return to where they were before some horrific event," says King, the Northwestern professor.

But the specter of new gun laws is going to depress stock prices in the industry as long as there's serious discussion in Washington.

"It often seems in the initial moments that [consumer activism] may rise to a very high level and create change, but that usually doesn't happen," says Glickman, the consumer historian. "It does strike me that in this case, that's not going to happen this time."

Newtown might be different. There's something especially horrific and easy to visualize about the massacre of first-graders in their classrooms. "This kind of worry, particularly for parents, is not going to go away," Chavis says.

What's more, the most recent tragedy has had a certain compounding effect, offering a stark reminder of the numerous other mass shootings that have occurred in recent months.

"Consumer activism often works that way," Glickman says. "There's an accumulation of things, but one action or event becomes symbolic of a broader problem."

We've yet to see whether consumers and investors will remain upset enough about guns for a long enough period of time to have a lasting impact on gun makers and sellers.

But if they do, it will put additional pressure on politicians to enact legislation and act as a potential counter to efforts of the heavily organized gun lobby.

"As a voter and citizen, you want to give politicians and retailers a way to promote your position," Chavis says.

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