Washington state’s pension funds invest about $5.3 million in stocks of ammunition and gun manufacturers at a time when lawmakers have passed or proposed tougher gun-control measures in response to mass shootings.
The investments in four publicly traded companies that manufacture guns or ammunition are with Olin Corp.; Sturm, Ruger; Vista Outdoors; and American Outdoor Brands. They comprise a small portion of the $98 billion in total assets managed by the Washington State Investment Board for 17 retirement plans for teachers, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and other public employees.
Washington’s stake in gun-maker shares comes by default, according to Chris Phillips, the board’s spokesman. It consists of only passive stock-market investments and makes up 0.005 percent of all managed retirement assets, he said.
“This does not represent any active or targeted investment in these companies, but is a byproduct of owning shares in all-inclusive index funds,” Phillips said.
By comparison, the state’s pension funds’ largest single stock holding is $573.3 million in Apple, a 1.65 percent stake of total public-equity investments for Washington retirement plans.
Olin Corp. licenses the production of Winchester firearms and it manufactures ammunition. Sturm, Ruger & Co. makes an array of hunting and assault-style rifles, pistols and revolvers. Vista Outdoors owns firearms manufacturer Savage Arms, which produces shotguns and rifles, as well as two companies that make ammunition. And American Outdoor Brands owns Smith & Wesson, which made the AR-15 assault-style rifle used to kill 17 people Feb. 14 at a Parkland, Florida, high school.
As with stock holdings in tobacco and fossil-fuel companies, investments by state pension funds in publicly traded gun-industry-related firms — including firearms and ammunition manufacturers and retailers — have come under scrutiny in recent years. Last month’s Florida mass killing launched a new wave of criticism.
California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey are among several states to recently pass or consider legislation to dump gun-related stocks or restrict further publicly funded investments in them.
Calls for such action in liberal-leaning Washington have remained relatively few and informal, though the state’s investment board has received several inquiries about its gun-related investments since its last meeting on Feb. 15, Phillips said. In response, the board on Friday posted a statement about the investments on its website.
Jaron Lindbom, a spokesman for Washington Ceasefire — the most prominent gun-control advocacy group in the state — said his organization generally supports public divestment of gun-industry stock but hasn’t pressed that issue. Instead, the group’s primary focus has been pushing for tougher gun-control measures, such as the recently approved bill banning bump-stock devices that enable shooters to fire weapons more rapidly.
“We at Ceasefire don’t think the public should be involved in helping finance gun-manufacturers’ bottom line, so we’re open to anything that helps,” Lindbom said. “But there are far more effective ways to reduce gun violence in this state.”
Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, one of two legislators who currently sit on the state’s investment board, said he feels “comfortable with how limited our exposure is to the gun industry” in current investments.
With shares in gun-related firms comprising a nickel out of every $1,250 invested, Mullet said the state’s investment in firearms-related stocks is “about as small as we can make it.”
Mullet co-sponsored the bill banning bump stocks, and the NRA last year gave him a 21 percent rating on gun-rights issues. He said the state board could opt to invest its pension assets in actively managed funds to avoid owning any gun-industry stock.
But such investment strategies carry much higher management fees. As the fiduciary charged with managing Washington’s public-employee pension funds, the board is acting responsibly by not doing that, he said.
“We’re saving literally millions by investing in these passively managed funds,” Mullet said. “If you’re going to invest this way, you’re basically going to own every publicly traded company in the United States. That’s just kind of the nature of how those work.”
Still, one of Washington’s two pension-fund asset managers for passive public-equity investments recently vowed to make changes to address clients’ concerns over gun-industry investments.
BlackRock is the world’s largest index investor and one of the nation’s largest owners of shares in gun manufacturers. It issued a statement this month explaining that its ownership stakes in gun-related companies wasn’t by choice but rather because those companies are included in public-equity indexes. Because third-party index providers construct those indexes, BlackRock said it is constrained from choosing specific stocks when offering those investment products to its clients.
Nonetheless, BlackRock cited a need to respond to the Florida shooting. It said it would engage with firearms manufacturers and retailers in which its clients are now invested to ensure those firms’ business practices are socially responsible. BlackRock stated it also would begin offering clients “a choice of products that exclude firearms manufacturers and/or retailers.”
If such gun-free equity investments become available for Washington pension funds, Mullet, one of the 10 voting investment board members, said he would be open to considering them.
“But it really depends on what the management fees are,” he said.