12/21/2012 10:23 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Divestment and Image Concerns Drive Big Changes in Gun Business -- And Offer Activists a Major Opportunity

Responses to the tragedy in Newtown indicate there are cracks in the great wall the NRA has erected to block gun control -- in places that don't require legislation -- that offer a unique, time-sensitive opportunity for activists

The Newtown tragedy is making big waves in business -- and showing the incredible power of divestment as a political/activist strategy.

After the California State Teacher's Retirement System pension fund (CalSTRS) announced it is  "looking over its Cerberus investments " that amount to over $750 million, the investment fund  announced that it was selling off its investments in Freedom Group, the company that manufactures the Bushmaster assault rifle that was used by Adam Lanza in his mass murder assault in Newtown.

The Freedom Group describes itself as "the world's leading innovator, designer, manufacturer and marketer of firearms, ammunition and related products for the hunting, shooting sports, law enforcement and military markets."

CalSTRS, with a $150 BILLION investment portfolilo, is also reviewing ALL its portfolios for presence of gun connections.

It gets worse for Cerberus. USA Today reports, "California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer said Tuesday he would like his state's two largest pension funds to sell their investments in gunmakers. The California Public Employees' Retirement Systems, or CalPERS, also has a $400 million investment in Cerberus, according to its most recent quarterly report of its private-equity holdings."

Divesting a major company from an investment portfolio is a huge move.

This quick development, just days after the massacre, demonstrates the incredible power that large investment funds hold when they even mention the consideration of divestment.

Taking a smaller but significant step, USA today reports:

"the Dick's Sporting Goods chain, which has more than 500 stores in 44 states, said that 'out of respect for the victims and their families' it was suspending the sale of modern sporting rifles nationwide as well as halting gun sales and displays in its store nearest to Newtown, Conn., where the shootings occurred."

The USA Today article also cited Anthony Sabino, a corporate litigator, who said that 'Cerberus' decision to sell the gunmaker was "more of a public relations move. Cerberus doesn't want this stake, whatever its size, showing up on its reports to investors, It's more to placate public pension funds. Money is not the motivation here. Perception is."

HuffPost reports that the New York City pension fund may sell off almost $18 million worth of gun stocks.

Even Walmart, in a token gesture, has removed the Bushmaster page from its website.

This is exciting news to me, as an activist. It shows the potential power of retirement funds that take a principled stand with the hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars they, combined, wield. If a handful of key people in leadership positions can use their positions to shame retailers or motivate investors to pull money out of gun related industries, then the effects could be really big. Already stock values in some gun companies have plummeted, as The Washington Post reported on Monday:

"Smith & Wesson dropped 5.2 percent to close Monday at $8.65, extending its slide to 9.3 percent over two days after Friday's massacre. Sturm Ruger has fallen 7.8 percent during the period, while Cabela's, an outdoor-gear retailer that sells guns and ammunition, slumped 7.3 percent."

Alan Dershowitz, in a Daily Beast article, argues against the use of boycotting, saying,

"On balance I prefer legislation to boycotts, blacklists, and divestments. The former is part of our open system of checks and balances and can be challenged in the courts. The latter can be imposed by a small cadre of determined individuals who are not subject to any democratic constraints. So let us pressure Congress to enact tough gun-control laws. Let us create lobby groups to offset the negative influence of the National Rifle Association."

I find his article remarkably naive. The problem is we don't have a real democracy in the USA. We have a corpotatocracy where the elected legislators are in thrall to big business and big special interest groups like the NRA, which is helped by billionaires like the Koch brothers and ALEC. The good idea to take from Dershowitz is his confirmation that "...boycotts, blacklists, and divestments... can be imposed by a small cadre of determined individuals who are not subject to any democratic constraints." In other words, activists, if they play their cards right, and develop boycott and divestment strategies, building partnerships and allying with major retirement funds, can make big changes that legislators can't or won't do.

Then there are the retailer responses. Here, the power of the minority also has great potential. I'm convinced that now is a perfect time for social media campaigns to put pressure on retailers -- box store and online -- to totally eliminate high volume clips or magazines with more than 10 cartridges from their offerings. If they're not even on the market it will make it easier for legislators to pass legislation that permanently bans them.

it would be very nice if some good comes out of the Newtown tragedy. The signs are manifesting. Now is the time for activists to spring into action.

Crossposted from