By Tom Elias
No one at last month’s meeting of the Board of Administrators of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) ever said money counts for more than lives, but there were serious questions about priorities after that board voted 9-3 to hang onto its stash of stocks in gun retailers.
Voting about the same time when millions of teenagers and their adult supporters staged massive pro-gun control marches in cities across the state and nation, California’s largest stock investor chose to hang onto those holdings despite pleas from Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang that it divest from companies selling assault rifles.
The state’s leading retirement board rejected Chiang’s appeal on grounds stated by board member Bill Slaton, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown who is also president of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, second-largest municipal utility in the state.
“We obviously have a significant (assault weapon) problem in this country,” said Slaton. “We have found engagement is a better alternative in order for us to accomplish something in this area.”
Translation: the pension board believes its prime job is to maximize investment returns rather than attempting tactics that might save lives.
This is clear from CalPERS’ persistence in owning stock in companies like Walmart, one of its 10 largest holdings. Until three years ago, Walmart sold guns like the AR-15 assault weapon used in the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre which spurred the so-called “March for Our Lives.” That nationwide protest brought a larger turnout than President Trump’s inauguration to the federal Mall in Washington, D.C. The protests also called for raising the age of eligibility for gun purchases of all types. Only after Parkland did Walmart raise that age to 21.
Slaton appeared to credit supposed pressure from CalPERS for that Walmart decision, when there’s no evidence of any pressure at all from the retirement system. Walmart did not make any changes until years after earlier school shootings in places like Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook, Conn., and CalPERS never moved to divest. Neither Walmart nor CalPERS made changes after the San Bernardino County massacre of 2015, which left 14 dead and 22 other persons seriously wounded.
In fact, there’s no evidence CalPERS or any other investors ever influenced gun retailers to stop or restrict assault rifle sales.
So Slaton’s claim looks empty.
Chiang, running third among Democrats in the current campaign to be California’s next governor, used his anti-gun pitch to the CalPERS board in a campaign mailer, saying he would push the retirement fund and other institutional investors to dump holdings in companies that sell military-style guns.
In an official statement, he again urged CalPERS and America’s other big institutional investors – outfits like BlackRock, Fidelity Investments, Vanguard mutual funds, PIMCO and the Allstate and State Farm insurance companies – to divest from gun dealers.
There have been no results yet.
The CalPERS board specifically ignored divestment appeals from relatives of San Bernardino victims. One such plea came from Arlen Vandehyou, whose wife was killed in that onslaught. “Do everything possible to put a dent in gun violence,” he begged. But CalPERS did nothing.
Chiang heard that appeal, but made no promises to change things at the retirement system if he becomes governor. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, running first in the campaign, implied at a March for Our Lives rally in Orange County that he would.
“We will be the example (for the rest of America),” he said. “Gun control saves lives.”
Chiang, a CalPERS board member because of his position, was more specific. “If we don’t take action, nobody is going to take us seriously on this,” he said. “Today, California public employees are inextricably tied to the gun trade through their pension accounts. But…we can build the pressure needed for the nation’s largest pension funds and investors to cut ties to companies that sell assault-style weapons.”
Only after the San Bernardino shootings did Californians pass Proposition 63, which puts mild restrictions on ammunition sales. Maybe Parkland, combined with the killings of three therapists at the Yountville Veterans Home by a former patient using a semi-automatic rifle, can spur tougher action, including stock dumps by both CalPERS and the state’s teachers’ pension system.
But it won’t happen soon. That was the signal sent by CalPERS in its late March anti-divestment vote.