December 18, 2012

Investors turn against gun makers after massacre

The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Investors shunned some of the nation's largest gun makers Tuesday, putting up for sale the manufacturer of the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the Connecticut school shooting and worrying that the attack could soon bring stricter gun laws.

click image to enlarge

This March 27, 2006 file photo, shows a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and ammunition on display at the Seattle Police headquarters in Seattle. The maker of the Bushmaster rapid-fire weapon used to kill schoolchildren in Connecticut on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was put up for sale on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, as investors soured on the gun business. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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Stocks of other gun companies fell, and one sporting-goods chain said it would temporarily stop sales of military-style firearms. In Washington, some former opponents of gun control signaled that they may change their position, potentially giving stricter gun laws their best chance of passage in years.

The most notable rejection of the gun industry came when the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced it would sell the maker of the rifle used in the massacre, which it called a "watershed event."

The shooting "raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level," Cerberus said in a news release. "We are investors, not statesmen or policy makers."

In an acknowledgment of the changing political climate, the National Rifle Association promised "to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." It scheduled a Friday news conference.

Bushmaster, Remington and DPMS are among the brands made by Freedom Group Inc., the largest firearms maker in the U.S.

The Madison, N.C., company sold 1.1 million rifles and shotguns last year, along with 2 billion rounds of ammunition. Its customers include law enforcement and military agencies, as well as retailers who serve hunters and gun enthusiasts.

Cerberus, a large private-equity firm best known for investing in Chrysler and other troubled corporations, appeared to have been under pressure from two sources: investors and the threat of more gun control.

Officials at California's huge teacher pension fund said they were reviewing a $600 million investment in Cerberus in light of the Connecticut shooting. Through its stake in Cerberus, the California State Teachers' Retirement System owns a 2.4 percent stake in Freedom Group.

Pension fund spokesman Michael Sicilia confirmed the fund owns about $4 million in shares of Sturm Ruger & Co. and $1.7 million in Smith and Wesson.

Cerberus filed papers in 2009 to take Freedom Group public, but it withdrew the bid in 2011 without saying why. A Cerberus spokesman declined to comment Tuesday beyond the company's statement.

Freedom Group has lost money in four of the last five years, according to financial filings on its website. Revenue in 2011 was $775 million, down from $848.7 million in 2009. Slightly more than half of its 2011 revenue came from guns, much of the rest from ammunition.

The assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 restricted the sale of some types of guns like those made by Bushmaster. The adoption of a similar law "could have a material adverse effect on our business," Freedom Group said in a statement.

In 2010, Freedom Group said it would close its Bushmaster plant in Windham, Maine, and shift the work to a plant in Ilion, N.Y. At the time, New York Sen. Charles Schumer praised the move as a way to strengthen Remington's ability to compete for Defense Department gun contracts.

Firms like Cerberus are basically privately run pools of money that invest in companies on behalf of pension funds. On Tuesday, the fund attempted to distance itself from the national debate.

"It is not our role to take positions, or attempt to shape or influence the gun control policy debate," the firm said. "That is the job of our federal and state legislators."

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