As an employee at small nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area for most of my life, I paid little attention to saving for my retirement. So, about nine years ago, when I started working at a company that offered me a 401(k), I had only positive thoughts about these retirement funds that might someday provide me with a comfortable life in my old age.
But the activism of the young survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Fla., has turned my rosy view of my retirement savings into an angry red, because the firm that manages my retirement funds, the Vanguard Group, is one of the top institutional investors in Sturm Ruger & Company, American Outdoor Sports (which owns Smith & Wesson) and Vista Outdoors. These companies manufacture semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15 that was used to kill 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and which have erased so many other innocent lives.
There’s a good chance your retirement funds are supporting assault weapons manufacturers, too.
The list of Bay Area companies that use Vanguard to manage their employees’ retirement funds is practically a who’s who of our top firms — from tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to more traditional organizations like Clorox and Kaiser Permanente, to city agencies like the San Francisco Unified School District. Even Google, owner of YouTube, which experienced a shooting incident this week, uses Vanguard.
There are many things 401(k) holders in the Bay Area, who don’t want their money anywhere near an assault weapons company, can do to put pressure on the gun industry. The first step is to make sure you’re not unknowingly complicit in Vanguard’s gun-related investments. At some Bay Area companies, it’s possible to switch from the standard 401(k) funds to a socially responsible fund. At Kaiser Permanente, where I used to work, that is the situation. Other employees aren’t so lucky. And firms like Vanguard don’t make it easy to figure out where our money is invested.
Another layer of complexity is that Vanguard and other investment giants argue they actually don’t have the ability to address concerns about gun investments because their investments are in index funds that are required to include all of the companies that are included in the index. This argument is ludicrous. It’s like the NRA saying it has no power over the gun policy decisions made by politicians to whom they’ve donated thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Somehow, I just know that an investment firm that has tens of millions of dollars invested in a specific company has just a little bit of say when it comes to that company’s decisions.
The second step is to put pressure on the investment companies to divest. We’ve already seen that concerted campaigns of this nature can work. Investment behemoth BlackRock, which has been the target of a divestment campaign by groups like Gays Against Guns, which was formed after the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., recently announced plans to offer clients a way to opt out of gun stocks.
I recently started a Care2 petition telling Vanguard to divest from companies that manufacture semi-automatic weapons, and it has nearly 30,000 signatures already. But that wasn’t enough to get Vanguard to do more than offer its version of “thoughts and prayers.” Vanguard says it is meeting with leaders of gun manufacturers to find out “how they will mitigate the risks that their products pose.” Meetings aren’t good enough.
It’s time for us to contact the HR offices at our companies and tell them to pressure Vanguard to get our retirement money out of gun companies. And it’s time for us to call, email and tweet to Vanguard, and even stage die-ins outside of their offices if we need to.
The Parkland students are leading the way when it comes to fearless advocacy to prevent gun violence. It’s time for the adults to follow.
Andrea Buffa lives in San Francisco.