Gun shy

6 October 2015 By Rob Cox

Trinity Church stands at the top of Wall Street, surrounded by the graves of illustrious former parishioners. One was Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury. Though the founding father may be better known today as the subject of a hip-hop show playing farther north on Broadway, Hamilton ended up in Trinity’s burial ground after famously being shot in a duel with rival Aaron Burr.

So it’s only fitting that the steward of Hamilton’s remains is using its $3 billion endowment to shape the national debate over firearms regulation. Trinity’s ambitions took on new meaning last week after nine people were killed at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. The murderer’s arsenal included an AR-15 rifle. Trinity had asked the board of Wal-Mart to adopt policies for selling AR-15s and other dangerous products that could harm the mega-retailer’s brand and reputation.

Legally, Trinity’s effort failed. A federal appeals court blocked the church’s shareholder proposal calling for the policies, saying it interfered with store operations.

The thing is, Wal-Mart decided to stop selling these civilian versions of military assault rifles anyway, citing declining demand. The retailer announced its decision on the day in August when two Virginia television journalists were murdered by a former co-worker while broadcasting live.

After last Thursday’s massacre at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, it’s a fair bet calls from President Barack Obama and others for stricter gun regulation will again stoke sales of what the weapons industry calls modern sporting rifles. Does that mean Wal-Mart will restock its shelves with Del-Ton and Bushmaster AR-15s?

Don’t count on it. Wal-Mart has probably divined what Trinity was getting at in the first place. Selling stuff that can kill whole groups of human beings is not a good, sustainable business. That realization drove CVS Health to stop peddling tobacco products a year ago, a move for which it was ultimately rewarded.

The decision took guts. At the time, smokes sold at the $110 billion company’s 7,600 stores brought in $200 million of annual net income. Yet since CVS made the announcement in February 2014, its shares have risen in value 46 percent, besting those of rival Walgreen. Going cold turkey also helped CVS’ pharmaceutical benefits arm win new health-related contracts.

Wal-Mart isn’t that different from CVS. Sure, it sells more diabetes-inducing soft drinks than anyone else and is the main retailer in rural, pro-gun parts of America. But it also has an interest in protecting its shoppers and, to Trinity’s point, its reputation. Imagine a nationwide consumer boycott inspired by the sale of a gun used in a shooting spree like the one in Roseburg.

Wal-Mart has effectively acknowledged the risk. In June, it pulled Confederate flag paraphernalia from its stores after a 21-year-old white man, who said he wanted to spark a race war, gunned down nine African-American parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Trinity has arguably accomplished what it set out to do after a white male massacred 20 first-graders and six teachers in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in December 2012. He used an AR-15 made by Freedom Group’s Bushmaster unit. Wal-Mart is no longer selling that type of gun.

But the church chartered in 1698 by King William III, and with only its 18th rector, is taking the long view. It is petitioning the Supreme Court to hear the argument that its Wal-Mart proposal addresses a governance issue relating to corporate social responsibility and deserves a shareholder vote.

As James Cooper, Trinity’s former rector and an avid hunter, put it in the original petition, the church is “seeking to have an impact in addressing this devastating issue by engaging businesses and fellow investors in dialogue on the serious moral, ethical, and business implications of selling guns equipped with high-capacity magazines.” And while Wal-Mart may have settled the issue of selling civilian assault weapons, shareholders at all companies deserve a say on questions of potential social responsibility.

The Supreme Court probably won’t take the case – it grants less than 1 percent of the petitions it receives. But the court is unpredictable. Given public outrage over another horrific shooting, this lawsuit may catch the justices’ interest.

If so, that would be good news for shareholders, especially if it means they will gain power to hold corporate boards accountable. As for those who would like to see more companies follow Wal-Mart’s lead, it would be an even bigger blessing, one that Hamilton might have welcomed.

 

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