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published on March 19, 2018 - 1:25 PM
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(AP) — California Treasurer John Chiang and families of mass shooting victims called Monday for the nation’s largest public pension fund to stop investing in companies that sell assault weapons and devices that allow guns to fire more rapidly.

“Divesting in these companies that sell these weapons will send a clear message that the thoughts and prayers that are sent when these tragedies occur are not enough — the state of California is demanding change,” said Renee Wetzel, whose husband, Mike, was killed in the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. “Don’t let my husband’s death be in vain.”

Wetzel was one of more than a dozen family members of mass shooting victims who testified before the California Public Employees’ Retirement System board. California alumni of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed in a shooting last month, also spoke in support of the initiative by Chiang, a board member and Democratic candidate for governor.

Others criticized it as an ineffective strategy and political ploy.

New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New York also are discussing divesting from gun-related companies.

The California board took no immediate action but said it is talking with gun retailers. Four of the five companies it invests in that sell guns have moved to stop selling assault weapons and raise the age for firearm purchases.

The retirement system has roughly $850 million in holdings in Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Kroger, Big 5 Sporting Goods and Sportsman’s Warehouse Holdings.

The pension fund in California, which severely restricts the sale and possession of assault-style weapons, has a total value of $354 billion.

The fund approached all five companies in the fall, asking them to stop selling assault weapons and devices such as bump stocks. Following the Florida shooting, Dick’s and Kroger said they would stop selling such guns and would, along with Walmart, only sell guns to those 21 and older.

Walmart and Big 5 Sporting Goods had previously stopped selling assault weapons.

Experts have long questioned the financial and political effectiveness of divestment, and it’s generally against the pension fund’s policy. By divesting, shareholders give up their power to exert influence and often times simply turn over the shares to other owners who may not take the same political or social stance.

“If we divest, we lose our seat at the table,” board member Theresa Taylor said.

Divestment initiatives had cost the pension fund more than $8 billion as of June 2017, according to a fund memo.

While supporters of stopping gun investments made up the bulk of public testimony, several others called the effort a political ploy by Chiang or warned that it could hurt the pension fund’s bottom line.

The system has enough money to cover roughly 70 percent of the money it owes to 1.8 million members.

“I believe in the efforts, but the fact is, divestment doesn’t work,” said Joe Morgan, a teacher at Riverside Community College. “This really has been made entirely too political.”

Still, the fund has previously used divestment to make political statements. It decided in 2016 to sell off the last of its tobacco investments and has similarly started reducing its investments in coal. The state began divesting from gun manufacturers in 2013 following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The state’s teacher pension fund will present research on its holdings in gun retailers in May.


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