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Walmart, other retailers listen to religious shareholders

Corporations turn attention to gun safety resolutions to help prevent more gun violence

Published: October 15, 2019   
CNS / Callaghan O’Hare, Reuters
A woman releases balloons Aug. 6 at a memorial after the Aug. 3 mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. Those pressing for change to prevent gun violence are having an effect in the corporate boardroom.

WASHINGTON — The desire for action on preventing more gun violence may face hurdles in Congress, but those pressing for change are having an effect in the corporate boardroom.

While now may be the moment to effect changes in federal firearms policy, that moment did not come without a lot of groundwork, according to Dominican Sister Judy Byron, director of the Seattle-based Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment.

“ICCR members did some initial work on guns in the early 2000s, and it’s been over the past couple of years that we picked up the issue again,” said Sister Judy, referring to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, to which the Northwest Coalition belongs.

The current tactic is to urge firearms makers and sellers to adopt human rights policies.

“Do models exist? Yes, yes, yes. Hundreds of companies have adopted human rights policies,” Sister Judy told Catholic News Service in a Sept. 12 telephone interview from Seattle. She cited the Hershey Co., North America’s largest candy company. “They use a lot of sugar. How are those workers treated?” she asked rhetorically, adding that acknowledgment of the treatment of sugar harvesters is part of its policy.

Her work has focused as of late on two gunmakers: American Outdoor Brands, maker of Smith & Wesson guns, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. At the latter’s shareholders meeting last year, Sister Judy said, close to 69 percent of shares were voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution to have the company adopt a gun safety policy.

At American Outdoor Brands, an ICCR-sponsored shareholder resolution for a gun safety policy won with 52 percent of all votes cast, but the company has yet to produce one. Both companies have also refused to engage with ICCR members on gun safety concerns.

A vote at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Sept. 24, requesting a human rights policy, did not pass, according to the company, although vote totals were not immediately released.

ICCR talks with hundreds of corporations, including Walmart, each year.

“ICCR members have worked with Walmart since the 90s on multiple issues,” Sister Judy said. “We know that after Parkland (the 2018 high school shooting that left 17 dead), Walmart raised the (purchase) age to 21, and they don’t sell assault weapons. But after the latest incident at El Paso at one of their stores, there was a lot of pressure on them about selling guns and ammunition.”

She added, “We had a face-to-face dialogue with executives at Walmart” — and not with some corporate functionary but with company president and CEO Doug McMillon.

“Walmart said, ‘Let’s have a conversation,’” Sister Judy said. “They talked to many stakeholders, not just ICCR. They really have to consider the risks to their customers as well as to society for whatever they did. We know what they did.”

The company announced it would stop selling all handgun ammunition and certain short-barreled rifle ammunition.

Walmart also asked customers to not openly carry weapons into stores anymore. The open-carry request also has been made by the Walgreens and CVS drugstore chains and the Albertsons and Kroger supermarket chains.

Sister Judy remembers working with Dick’s Sporting Goods on the issue. “In December 2017 we filed a resolution asking what they were doing with the Sandy Hook Principles,” a response to the December 2012 shooting spree that left 26 dead — most of them young grade-school children — before the killer took his own life. “Unlike the gun manufacturers, they called us right away,” she said.

“The CEO was on the conversation and told us about the things the company was struggling with, because they were selling the firearms and ammunition. It was after Parkland that they made their decision to raise the age (for gun sales),” Sister Judy said. “They’ve really been a leader. They’ve even hired a lobbyist in D.C. to work on sensible gun reform.”

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