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Wall Street Journal / Biz - Money

BlackRock, a Shareholder in Gun Makers, Ramps Up Pressure on Gun Industry

BlackRock went public with the questions that it is asking gun makers and sellers in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., an unusual step by the world’s largest asset manager.


BlackRock is the largest shareholder in gun makers Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brands. Above, an attendee at a National Rifle Association meeting in 2015 handles a revolver;. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

By

Sarah Krouse

293 COMMENTS

BlackRock Inc. BLK 1.03% went public with the questions that it is asking gun makers and sellers in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., an unusual step by the world’s largest money manager by assets.

The notice, posted to BlackRock’s website Friday, is the latest sign that some money managers are ramping up pressure on companies that make and sell weapons. The questions range from litigation risks and gun safety to background checks and staff training.

“We cannot dictate what a company should do,” BlackRock said, but warned it generally has the ability to vote against individual directors or in favor of shareholder proposals.

Blackstone Group LP last weekend asked outside fund managers to detail their ownership in companies that make or sell guns. State Street Global Advisors, another big money manager, has said it also plans to reach out to gun makers with questions.

A number of U.S. companies have reassessed their relationships with the gun industry and the National Rifle Association following last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Major retailers, including Kroger Co. , Walmart Inc. and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., said this past week that they would stop selling guns to anyone under 21 years old.

BlackRock is the largest shareholder in gun makers Sturm Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands , AOBC 0.87% formerly known as Smith & Wesson, as well as a large shareholder in firms such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods. BlackRock said in the notice that it doesn’t own any gun makers in its actively managed stock funds, and in its index-tracking funds, those companies account for 0.01% of assets under management.

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In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, student survivors have started a movement for greater gun control. Two students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School explain how social media, crowdfunding and political activism have helped spread their message. Photo: Getty Images

The New York money manager has met with clients, including pension funds and other institutional investors, to discuss ways they can exclude gun stocks from their portfolios if they wish to and what BlackRock is asking of executives at companies that make or distribute guns, according to people familiar with those efforts.

It held one such conference call for large customers as recently as Friday morning, with executives focused on corporate stewardship and client relationships.

BlackRock and other large money managers that control funds tied to market indexes say they prefer not to use their heft to make immediate demands such as putting an individual on the board or divesting business units, in contrast to more aggressive dictates from activist directors. Instead, they say they like to work behind the scenes and question their portfolio companies routinely about their policies and plans.

But it is rare for BlackRock to make those questions public.

Last year, BlackRock stopped short of detailing the types of questions it asked company boards and executives in a paper that broadly laid out how it engaged with its portfolio companies on climate-change risk.

In the notice Friday, BlackRock called gun violence “an issue of tremendous urgency.”

The questions the firm said were being posed to gun makers and distributors include broad inquiries such as how they measure the “financial, reputational and litigation risk” of those respective businesses and what actions they take to support gun safety and education.

But BlackRock is also posing specific queries of gun makers, such as if they monitor whether the distributors of their weapons “have a high volume of their guns identified as having been used in crimes,” if they are spending money on research to improve gun safety, and if they require retailers to train their staff or certify that they conduct background checks.

For gun distributors, BlackRock asked what steps they take to make sure gun laws are followed such as “prohibiting felons or domestic abuse offenders from purchasing firearms; sales to minors of certain products; training provided to employees so they comply with applicable laws and regulations.”

BlackRock previously said that it planned to meet with weapons-related companies but stopped short of publicly articulating what type of information it planned to seek from them. It and other managers of index-tracking funds typically keep the contents of their engagements with portfolio companies private.

“We are fundamentally looking to understand whether the company has the appropriate policies and controls in place and is sufficiently managing the risks associated with these issues,” the new BlackRock notice said.

Write to Sarah Krouse at sarah.krouse@wsj.com

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