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California's teacher pension fund is stepping up its efforts to persuade major national retail companies to quit selling assault-type weapons that are illegal in the state.
The $225 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System plans to use its clout to nudge retailers to drop their remaining stock of guns that the California Department of Justice considers to be "assault-type weapons."
If the retailers stay in the gun business, CalSTRS would attempt to unseat members of their boards of directors, and would consider divesting from the companies under a new policy it approved on Wednesday. CalSTRS plans to hire two new employees to carry out the program.
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“Let’s take the battle to where the money is,” California Treasurer John Chiang, a member of the teachers’ retirement board, said in urging his colleagues to put more pressure on gun retailers. He criticized national leaders for failing to restrict access to semi-automatic guns in the wake of recent mass shootings.
Walmart is the largest of 10 companies in CalSTRS' portfolio that sell guns. CalSTRS has $320 million in the Arkansas-based retailer.
Walmart in 2015 phased out its sales of modern assault rifles, including the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a spokesman said. In February, the company announced that it would sell weapons and ammunition only to people older than 21.
Chiang, who is running for governor, since October has pressed CalSTRS and the larger California Public Employees’ Retirement System to divest from gun retailers. He has brought families who lost loved ones in mass shootings from Las Vegas and San Bernardino to lobby for the tougher policy.
On Wednesday, several retired teachers urged CalSTRS to divest from guns. They described traumatic school shooting drills that bring students to tears.
“It’s a moral issue. I have lived your greatest nightmare,” said Donna Finkelstein, a retired Los Angeles teacher whose daughter was wounded in a mass shooting in 1999.
Finkelstein's husband, Dave, read a letter from the father of one of the 17 students who were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.
"Let these companies know they can not go on placing a greater value on short term profits than they do on the safety and lives of our teachers and students," read the letter from Fred Guttenberg.
CalPERS in March rejected Chiang’s request to divest from gun retailers. A majority of its board of administration argued that companies like Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods The Kroger Co. had already restricted gun sales in a manner that satisfied CalPERS’ requests.
The CalSTRS board unanimously approved Chiang’s proposal, but one of its members sounded skeptical that it would pay off.
“If it gets to divestment, we have failed,” Paul Rosensteil said. “Really, this is all about Walmart. It’s Walmart, but our ownership of Walmart represents about one seventh of 1 percent of their market cap. By ourselves we’re not going to be that influential.”
Instead, he advocated partnering with other pension funds to lobby for changes.