SPRINGFIELD — Determined to address gun violence from within the firearms industry, the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusettsvoted last week to buy 200 shares of stock in American Outdoor Brands, the Springfield-based parent company of Smith & Wesson.
“So that we might have a voice at the table and work with some other church groups to see what we can do to lessen the public health crisis of gun violence,” said Bishop Douglas J. Fisher. “It’s born out of frustration.”
Two hundred shares is the minimum number needed to place an initiative question on the ballot before shareholders at American Outdoor Brands’ annual meeting.
The diocese and its partners are calling for universal background checks, smart gun technology that would stop a gun from working if in the hands of anyone but its owner, and an end to Smith & Wesson making guns that are illegal to possess in Massachusetts under this state’s stringent gun laws.
“The approach is not to put the company out of business, not to abolish the Second Amendment,” said Fisher, who is also a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence.
Fisher said Friday that the diocese’s frustration comes from the 97 American lives lost a day to gun violence. He said there’s also frustration with the lack of progress on gun safety and gun-control laws.
“But we are heartened by the recent ban on bump stocks,” he said.
There’s frustration as well with a lack of dialog between Smith & Wesson management and gun safety advocates. Young activists demonstrated outside Smith & Wesson’s factory gates on Roosevelt Avenue four times 2018, Fisher said. David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida in February was there for one of those demonstrations.
“They have been knocking on the door of Smith & Wesson since last March,” Fisher said. “We would really like a dialogue.”
American Outdoor Brands didn’t reply Friday to a request for comment.
The Springfield-based diocese’s move follows a decision this July, one also spearheaded by Fisher, for the National Episcopal Church to start buying shares of gunmakers in order to do shareholder activism on a national level.
Fisher will head up the committee doing that buying for the national church. He said the process starts next week and he doesn’t know yet what stocks or how many the national group will buy.
The Episcopal Church’s national organization has an investment portfolio of about $400 million, according to a report from the Episcopal News Service. In the past the Episcopal Church has tried to influence corporate behavior by not buying stock — for instance avoiding shares in tobacco companies or for-profit prisons.
The local diocese has not decided to buy stock in other gunmakers, Fisher said.
American Outdoor Brands has 1,600 employees at its Springfield Smith & Wesson plant.
The company’s roots trace to 1852 when Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson partnered to manufacture a firearm that used a self-contained cartridge. Smith & Wesson made handguns for old west gunslingers, for the army of the Russian tsar and for the allies in both World Wars.
The Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver in .44 Magnum got famous as “the most powerful handgun in the world” when Clint Estwood used it in the Dirty Harry movies.
The Episcopal effort follows the lead of a national coalition of Catholic nuns who in 2018 used their power as shareholders to propose and pass shareholder resolutions both at American Outdoor Brands and at competitor Sturm Ruger.
The gunmakers are now required to write a report, each due in February, outlining corporate efforts to monitor violent events associated with products produced by the company, detailing efforts to research and produce safer guns and gun products, and an assessment of the risks to corporate reputation and finances related to gun violence in the U.S.
Sister Judy Byron, member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters and director of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investments in Seattle, said she hasn’t heard much from AOBC since the resolution passed over the objections of management.
“It appears the company plans to produce the requested report, but this has not been confirmed,” Byron wrote in an email. “We are in the process of working on our strategy for 2019.”
The next filing period for shareholder initiatives at American Outdoor Brands is between May 28 and June 27, 2019, Byron said.
Fisher credited Byron and her group with pressuring Dick’s Sporting goods into giving up selling assault-style firearms at its stores and the Field & Stream stores it owns.
American Outdoor Brands management opposed Byron and her follow nuns. The company warned shareholders in its annual report in June that what it called the “actions of social activists” could cost the company by bringing stockholder proposals up for votes or by pressuring banks not to do business with the gunmaker.
Smith & Wesson once promised to be a leader in smart-gun technology as part of a deal with the Clinton administration to avoid lawsuits from gun violence victims. But that deal brought an angry backlash. Gun enthusiasts boycotted, and Smith & Wesson nearly went out of business. Subsequent owners and current management won’t talk about the incident and are now major donors to the National Rifle Administration.
Fisher said times, specifically when it comes to smart guns, have changed. The difference today is that there is a significant social movement of young people calling for change in America’s gun culture.
“You really have young people speaking out. That didn’t happen before,” he said.
He knows of no other Episcopal Diocese in the country buying gun company stocks.
Based in Springfield, the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts stretches from Interstate 495 to the New York state line. It includes 55 churches in central Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires and totals 16,500 members.
It’s the place of a church like the Episcopal diocese and the orders of nuns Byron represents to address guns in society and their impact, Fisher said.
“This is part of the mission of our church,” he said. “To address the issues of our time.”
“The church needs to be involved in the issues of our time, just as Jesus was involved in the issues of his time.”
“God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he said, quoting from the Lord’s Prayer.