Reif: NU must divest from firearms

Richard Reif, Op-Ed Contributor


The recent fatal shooting near Northwestern’s campus intensified local attention on gun violence. It came approximately two weeks after national outrage and angry demonstrations sparked by the Nashville school shooting, but despite the death tolls of both incidents, it seems likely that Congress and many state legislatures won’t pass meaningful gun safety legislation … thanks to a Republican Party heavily supported by the National Rifle Association. 

The GOP evidently stands for Guns Over People. It seems that it’s up to those who operate outside of the government to take decisive action toward achieving an end to gun violence. NU students have already begun that initiative by organizing protests and pressuring legislators to act responsibly, but that’s not enough. NU can do more. 

Students, faculty, administrators and alumni can target gunmakers’ bottom line by harnessing the financial power of Northwestern’s $14.4 billion endowment. This endowment, which partly funds student financial aid and operating and construction costs, can be a potent weapon against the gun lobby.

Fossil Free NU has led the movement to divest from coal, oil and gas. It’s time to launch  Firearms Free NU to divest from merchants of mass murder. Gunmakers like Smith & Wesson, Sturm and Ruger & Co.are publicly held companies that must be held accountable by institutional investors, including universities and colleges. Pressuring such institutional investors to divest their shares in these companies may force firearms makers to act responsibly or weaken their financial support for the gun lobby.

Harnessing NU’s financial power would require several steps from a variety of players. One of those is the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, a group that advises the Board of Trustees’ Investment Committee on socially and ethically responsible investing. Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Amy Falls would be a key participant in this process. After taking office in 2021, Falls said she wants to engage students, faculty and staff in conversations on the endowment’s role in environmental, social and governance factors. This is a good opportunity to demonstrate her commitment, as NU’s Board of Trustees has the final say on any investment decisions based on all available data and input from participating parties.

The first step would be to determine if the endowment’s investment portfolio includes gun company stocks. Rather than invest in individual companies, most university endowments invest in mutual and index funds that buy a large basket of stocks to diversify and balance their portfolio. According to Thomson Reuters, funds holding the largest shares of gunmakers’ stocks are Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund, First Eagle Global Fund and Fidelity Advisor Small Cap Fund. Collectively, these funds invest more than $380 million in the firearms industry. If any of those funds are part of NU’s endowment portfolio, the Investment Committee should disclose that to NU’s community and then ask those mutual funds to drop gun companies from their stock baskets. If they refuse, the Investment Committee should divest from those funds with the Board of Trustees’ approval.

If the Board of Trustees approves divestment from firearms makers, Northwestern would not be the first university to do so. Students at 42 colleges and universities have joined “#Killer Business,” a Students Demand Action campaign – which has an NU chapter – and is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit advocating for gun control. Students are urging schools to cut all economic ties with the gun industry and reveal their investments, which colleges tend to be uncommunicative about. NU should not be part of this secrecy pattern. Students, faculty and alumni deserve full disclosure.

I hope this all-out assault on assault-weapons-makers succeeds. Every dollar invested in gunmakers is a potential death warrant for innocent victims. The AR-15 style assault rifle that many mass shooters use has a special significance for me — it is a civilian version of the military’s M16 rifle I trained with during my Air Force service from 1964 to 1968. Both weapons have magazines that hold 30 rounds of ammunition. We can thank the gun lobby, funded by firearms makers, for this tragic situation.

While divestment from firearms stocks involves several steps, the ultimate responsibility rests with NU’s Board of Trustees. Their decision should be based not just on input from NU’s chief investment officer and the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility, but also on the perspectives from all key sectors of the University’s community. Will NU trustees put public safety ahead of return on investment, or does their moral compass point only to the bottom line? I urge all students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni: make your voices heard.

Richard Reif is a Medill alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.