Sooner or later it figures that someone would begin to follow the path blazed by Shannon Watts and her ladies and begin to view retail outlets not just as places where some good PR could be generated by demonstrating against guns, but as financial institutions whose balance sheets might make them targets for shareholder concerns. And now one of America’s most storied institutions, New York’s Trinity Church, has decided to voice its concern about gun violence by asking Walmart, whose shares it happens to own , to stop selling the assault-style rifles that were used by James Holmes in Aurora and Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook.
The Church, which sits on Lower Broadway across the street from where Wall Street begins, is asking the company to include a proxy in this year’s shareholder meeting that would require the company’s Board to oversee the sale of “products that especially endanger public safety and well-being, risk impairing the company’s reputation, or offend the family and community values integral to the company’s brand.” Walmart got the SEC to issue an order preventing the proposal from going before the shareholders in 2014, hence Trinity’s decision to take the matter to federal court. In November, the U.S. District Court decided in favor of Trinity which provoked an appeal by Walmart based on the idea that the Board should not be in a position to decid day-to-day operations of the stores. Now the case is headed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, probably to be heard in early March.
This case rests partially on deciding whether the owners of a public company can decide how the company should be run, but it also rests on the notion that Walmart is selling a product that, because it “endangers public safety,” should not be sold at all. This is very similar to the idea behind the lawsuit against Bushmaster filed by the parents of some of the victims at Sandy Hook, namely, that Bushmaster should be held liable for the damages caused by a type of gun which, because of its lethality, that should not be put into civilian hands.
Walmart’s response to Trinity was disingenuous at best. The company, through a spokesman named Randy Hargrove, cited its “long standing commitment” to standards that far exceed the law (I never met a company whose commitments to anything weren’t long-standing), and to prove its commitment to safety Mr. Hargrove said that neither high capacity magazines nor guns were sold on Walmart.com. It turns out that online sales account for less than 3% of Walmart’s total revenues, so citing company rules that govern gun sales on the internet could hardly be construed as proof of a commitment to anything at all.
The attempt by Trinity Church to push Walmart into discontinuing the sale of black guns shouldn’t be confused with an effort by a coalition of advocacy groups to persuade investors to divest themselves of holdings in Cerberus Capital, which owns the company (Freedom Group) that owns Bushmster Arms. To the extent that this campaign has frustrated the attempt by Cerberus to unload Freedom Arms, the firm has certainly not seen its position in the private equity market greatly diminished by the determination of advocates to force the company to stop selling guns.
On the other hand, what is really at stake in the Trinity case, whether the Church realizes this or not, is a fundamental question that strikes at the rationale for the existence of the entire gun industry itself. Ever since gun makers began to realize that hunting and traditional sports were declining and might eventually disappear, the gun industry has promoted the idea that guns are intrinsically good because they protect us from harm. What Trinity is saying is that certain kinds of guns, and perhaps all guns, endanger rather than protect us, and therefore should not be sold. If the Court of Appeals sides with Trinity and black guns disappear from store shelves, what prevents Mike Bloomberg from loading up on Walmart stock and demanding a seat on the Board?