U.S. cities sue ATF over untraceable ‘ghost guns’

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – Chicago and three other cities on Wednesday sued the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), demanding it correct how it interprets what is a firearm and halt the sale of untraceable “ghost gun” kits increasingly used in crimes.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind filed against the ATF, according to lawyers for the cities of Chicago, San Jose, Columbia, South Carolina, and Syracuse, New York. It was filed in the Southern District of New York state.

So-called “ghost gun” or “80% gun” kits are self-assembled from parts purchased online or at gun shows. The parts that are assembled are not classified as a firearm by the ATF. For that reason they can be legally sold with no background checks and without serial numbers to identify the finished product.

The lawsuit argues the ATF and the Department of Justice “refuse to apply the clear terms of the Gun Control Act” which the suit says defines regulated firearms as not only working weapons “but also their core building blocks – frames for pistols, and receivers for long guns.”

The ATF says on its website that receivers in which the fire-control cavities are solid “have not reached the ‘stage of manufacture’ which would result in the classification of a firearm.”

The ATF said in an emailed statement that its “regulatory and enforcement functions are focused and clearly defined by laws.” The bureau emphasized that it investigates criminal possession and other criminal use of privately made firearms.

Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that is a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the cities, argues that until about 2006, the ATF did require unfinished components that clearly were going to be used to make guns to carry a serial number and anyone buying them undergo a background check.

“The ATF used to interpret the Gun Control Act the right way – they would look at how quickly a frame or receiver could be converted into an operable weapon,” said Eric Tirschwell, managing director for the litigation arm of Everytown. “If it was pretty quickly, they would say ‘yeah, that’s a firearm.'”

TECHNOLOGY TROUBLES

It’s unknown how many ghost guns are in circulation, but law enforcement agencies are unanimous in saying numbers are undeniably growing. Police in Washington D.C. last year recovered over 100 ghost guns – a 342% increase over 2018. They are already on pace this year to double the number found.

The ATF has said upward of 30% of the illegal weapons it has confiscated in some areas of California are ghost guns.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose city has been beset by gun violence, demanded the ATF close the ghost gun loophole and regulate the sale of gun parts that are marketed to easily be used to build guns.

“Individuals with dangerous histories shouldn’t be able to order lethal weapons on the internet with a few quick clicks,” Lightfoot said.

But Rick Vasquez, a Virginia-based firearms consultant and former ATF technical expert who evaluated guns and gun products to help the bureau determine if they were legal, said anyone wanting to address the proliferation of kit guns should pass new laws in Congress.

The continued rapid advancement of tools and technology widely available to the public meant it was getting to the point where even rudimentary “chunks of metal” can be turned into firearms, Vasquez said.

“How do you regulate that? The ATF can’t do it. This situation is uncontrollable because of technology, and I’m not sure what anyone can do about it.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

U.S. Air Force missed four chances to stop Texas shooter buying guns

People gather to enter a memorial in the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church where a memorial has been set up to remember those killed there, in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, U.S. November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jon Herskovitz

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force missed four chances to block the shooter in 2017’s deadly church attack in Texas from buying guns after he was accused of violent crimes while in the military, a report by the Department of Defense’s inspector general said on Friday.

Because the Air Force failed to submit Devin Kelley’s fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the former airman was able to clear background checks to buy the guns he used to kill 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

A Reuters investigation last year found that the Air Force missed multiple chances to submit Kelly’s fingerprints into the FBI’s criminal databases after the November 2017 attack.

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of Braunfels, Texas, U.S., involved in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is shown in this undated Texas Department of Safety driver license photo, provided November 6, 2017. Texas Department of Safety/Handout via REUTERS

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of Braunfels, Texas, U.S., involved in the First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is shown in this undated Texas Department of Safety driver license photo, provided November 6, 2017. Texas Department of Safety/Handout via REUTERS

Kelley, who was 26, was shot by a bystander as he fled and was found dead soon after, having shot himself in the head.

According to the inspector general’s report, the first missed chance came in June 2011, after the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began investigating a report of Kelley beating his stepson while Kelley served at a base in New Mexico.

The second chance came in February 2012, after the Air Force learned of allegations that Kelley was also beating his wife, the report said.

The third was in June 2012, when Kelley confessed on video to injuring his stepson, the report said.

The fourth was after Kelley’s court-martial conviction for the assaults in November 2013.

“If Kelley’s fingerprints were submitted to the FBI, he would have been prohibited from purchasing a firearm from a licensed firearms dealer,” the inspector general’s report said.

Each missed instance was a breach of Department of Defense policy, the report said. Multiple Air Force officials involved in Kelley’s case did not understand these policies or were unable to explain why they were not followed in interviews with the inspector general’s office.

The inspector general recommended that the Air Force improve its training of staff on how to submit fingerprints and to examine whether officials involved in Kelley’s case should face discipline for the lapses.

The Air Force did not respond to a request for comment on Friday morning but confirmed last year it had failed to share Kelley’s information with the FBI.

The inspector general found four occasions after Kelly’s conviction and a subsequent bad-conduct discharge from the military where Kelley bought guns from licensed dealers required to use the background check system.

At least some of those guns were the ones he took to the First Baptist Church, the report said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by David Gregorio)

Fighting fire with fire: Jewish people train to stop repeat of Pittsburgh shooting

Trainees practice an Israeli shooting method as they take part in the Cherev Gidon Firearms Training Academy in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, U.S. August 5, 2018. REUTERS/Noam Moskowitz

By Gabriella Borter

HONESDALE, Pa. (Reuters) – David Ortner adjusted his yarmulke, cocked his pistol and took aim – something he wishes a civilian had done to defend Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue three days ago when Robert Bowers walked in and shot 11 people dead.

“When this happens, you get a wake-up call,” said Ortner, a 28-year-old owner of an optician shop in Monsey, New York.

Ortner was one of nine Jewish men who attended a one-day course on Tuesday at the privately owned Cherev Gidon Israeli Tactical Defense Academy near Scranton, Pennsylvania, a class that was scheduled on Sunday in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue attack.

He was there to learn how to use a gun to protect himself and his community and prevent a repeat of Saturday’s massacre, the deadliest targeting Jewish people in U.S. history.

“The fact is, we’re at war,” said Yonatan Stern, a veteran officer of the Israel Defense Forces and director of the academy, told his class. “We want every Jew in America armed.”

In the six years since Stern started the academy, demand for firearms training had never been higher than after Saturday’s attack. Hundreds of interested students contacted Stern in the last 72 hours. All but three or four were Jewish.

The spike in demand follows President Donald Trump’s statement that the shooting might have been prevented if the synagogue had employed an armed guard.

But many Jews have resisted the idea that having guns in synagogues is the best way to prevent such attacks.

Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of the Kansas Interfaith Action, an advocacy organization, said on Tuesday that he did not believe Trump’s call for more armed guards could prevent attacks on places of worship.

“What kind of country we’re going to be if every house of worship has to have an armed guard?” Rieber said. “I think having less access to that kind of weaponry is going to be much more effective in the long run than having a single armed guard.”

According to Stern, an armed guard at a synagogue is a useful deterrent but not a replacement for armed civilians, since a shooter could kill the armed guard before entering and killing congregants.

“To wait for law enforcement to arrive simply is not the answer,” Stern said.

Some of the students attending the course were card-carrying National Rifle Association members. Some had never fired a gun before. Two worked in schools and wanted to defend Jewish children. Many of them intended to bring guns to their synagogues on the next Sabbath for protection.

“Everybody has to find a way to react; this is my way,” said Zev Guttman, who said he was scared of guns until Saturday’s shooting convinced him he had to be armed.

Tuesday’s course, held in a log cabin on an outdoor shooting range in rural Honesdale, about 300 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, consisted of active-shooter response drills using handguns and rifles. Students practiced drawing concealed weapons, loading and firing AR-15 rifles at bulls-eye targets.

Stern said that it “touches my heart” to see his students in training because he knows they will return to their synagogues as a first line of defense.

(The story corrects the name of Israel’s military in 5th paragraph to “Israel Defense Forces” instead of “Israeli Defense Force”.)

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S.-bound migrants enter Guatemala, others clash at border

Men, part of a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America en route to the U.S., push the border gate as they try to cross into Mexico and carry on their journey, in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Nelson Renteria and Delphine Schrank

SONSONATE, El Salvador/TAPANATEPEC, Mexico (Reuters) – A new group of migrants bound for the United States set off from El Salvador and crossed into Guatemala on Sunday, following thousands of other Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence who have taken similar journeys in recent weeks.

The group of more than 300 Salvadorans left the capital San Salvador on Sunday. A larger group of mostly Hondurans, estimated to number between 3,500 and 7,000, who left their country in mid-October and are now in southern Mexico, has become a key issue in U.S. congressional elections.

A third group broke through a gate at the Guatemala border with Mexico in Tecun Uman on Sunday, and clashed with police. Local first responders said that security forces used rubber bullets against the migrants, and that one person, Honduran Henry Adalid, 26, was killed.

People walk in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States, in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

People walk in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States, in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Six police officers were injured, said Beatriz Marroquin, the director of health for the Retalhuleu region.

Mexico’s Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete told reporters on Sunday evening that federal police did not have any weapons, even to fire plastic bullets.

He said that some of the migrants had guns while others had Molotov cocktails, and this information had been passed on to other Central American governments.

Guatemala’s government said in a statement that it regrets that the migrants didn’t take the opportunity of dialogue and instead threw stones and glass bottles at police.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have sought to make immigration a major issue ahead of Nov. 6 elections, in which the party is battling to keep control of Congress.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on “Fox News Sunday” said Trump was determined to use every authority he had to stop immigrants from crossing the border illegally.

“We have a crisis at the border right now … This caravan is one iteration of that but frankly we essentially see caravans every day with these numbers,” she said.

“I think what the president is making clear is every possible action, authority, executive program, is on the table to consider, to ensure that it is clear that there is a right and legal way to come to this country and no other ways will be tolerated,” Nielsen added.

Trump has threatened to shut down the border with Mexico and last week said he would send troops. On Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the use of troops and other military resources at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexican marines patrol the Suchiate river to stop the caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America en route to the U.S., to cross the river illegally from Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Mexican marines patrol the Suchiate river to stop the caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America en route to the U.S., to cross the river illegally from Tecun Uman, Guatemala, October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

BLISTERING HEAT

By Sunday evening, hundreds of the Salvadorans had crossed the border into Guatemala, having walked and hitched rides in pickups and on buses from the capital.

They organized using social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp over the last couple of weeks, inspired by the larger group in Mexico.

Salvadoran police traveled with the group, who carried backpacks and water bottles and protected themselves from the hot sun with hats.

Several migrants, gathered by the capital’s ‘Savior of the World’ statue before leaving, said they were headed to the United States.

El Salvador’s left-wing government said it had solidarity with the migrants and respected their right to mobilize, but urged them not to risk their lives on the way.

In Mexico, the original group of Hondurans, exhausted by constant travel in blistering heat, spent Sunday resting up in the town of Tapanatepec, Oaxaca, planning to head north at 3 am on Monday.

“It’s far … the farthest yet,” said Honduran Bayron Baca, 26, pulling open a map that Red Cross volunteers had given him in a medical tent.

Dozens took dips in a nearby river to refresh themselves from the trek, which has covered an average 30 miles (48 km) a day.

An estimated 2,300 children were traveling with the migrant caravan, UNICEF said in a statement, adding that they needed protection and access to essential services like healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Eduardo Grajales, a Red Cross volunteer in Arriaga, Mexico, attending to migrants on Friday night, said the worst case his colleagues had seen that day was of a baby so badly sunburned from the tropical heat, he had to be hospitalized.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria and Delphine Schrank, additional reporting by Carlos Rawlins, Sofia Menchu and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Rosalba O’Brien and Darren Schuettler)

U.S. will prosecute makers of ‘undetectable’ plastic guns: Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump addresses members of his cabinet during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned on Thursday that anyone who uses a 3-D printer to make an “undetectable” gun will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, a day after his department asked a court not to block the public from downloading blueprints for the guns.

“We will not stand for the evasion … of current law and will take action to ensure that individuals who violate the law by making plastic firearms and rendering them undetectable, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” Sessions said in his Thursday statement.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert)

Texas leaders want more screening and more guns to prevent more shootings

Ten roses are left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at the Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Texas political leaders are considering installing airport-style security at public schools and screening students for mental health issues as alternatives to gun control to thwart a repeat of last week’s deadly shooting at a Houston-area high school.

The focus on school security and mental health has emerged since the shooting because Republican Governor Greg Abbott is facing few calls to overhaul gun laws in a state where the majority of the electorate backs gun ownership. The governor’s office said he would hold roundtable discussions from Tuesday to focus on the best options.

Eight students and two teachers were killed when a 17-year-old student opened fire at Santa Fe High School last week in the latest mass shooting at a U.S. school.

Craig Bessent, an assistant superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District in Abilene, said in an interview that he will take part in the roundtable and that he favored more police or security officers and more screening of students as they entered school campuses.

He also supports arming some teachers as “a good first line of defense,” a position that President Donald Trump has advocated.

“There’s not just the one thing you can do that will stop this and be a cure-all,” Bessent said. “There’s not a single answer.”

The shooting at Santa Fe High School occurred about three months after 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stoking the national debate over gun control.

About two-thirds of Texas Republicans believe if more people carried guns, the state would be safer, according to a statewide survey in late 2017 from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune.

The shooting rampage in Florida sparked a gun control campaign by students and parents that has piled on pressure nationwide for lawmakers to enact gun control legislation.

“Texas Republicans look at this tragedy and they do not see the gun as the problem,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “They see the person as the problem and security as the second problem.”

One of the state’s most prominent Republican leaders, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, said he wanted to limit entrances to schools and stagger class starting times to allow for searches. He acknowledged that such airport-style screening would carry a high cost for the thousands of school districts in the state.

The Republican-controlled legislature is out of session until January 2019, making it nearly impossible for the state to implement and fund any major changes that come out of this week’s three roundtable discussions.

“The roundtables are more political theater than anything else,” Jones said.

The governor has said he sees the roundtables as an essential step in coming up with a consensus approach to enhance school safety. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Political analysts said if Abbott wanted to implement changes already floated, such as adding more metal detectors in schools and allowing for court orders to remove firearms from a person who presents a danger, he would call for a special legislative session. Abbott has given no indication that he would do so.

Texas has 5.4 million students enrolled in its public schools and any changes it made statewide would be costly.

One program being run out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock to screen students who could harm themselves or others has Abbott’s attention. He said after the shooting that he wanted to use it across the state.

The program trains people, using FBI threat-assessment criteria, to go to schools and screen students, according to Billy Philips, an epidemiologist and director of the Office of Rural Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

About 42,000 students have been screened through the program, according to data provided by Texas Tech. About 1 percent of them were referred to licensed counselors.

“Roughly about a third of those that were triaged were for suicidal intention, and they’re mostly female; females act in, males act out,” Phillips said.

Before the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Democrats had filed about 15 bills related to gun violence, almost all of which died when the legislative session ended last year. They included measures to buy back guns, improve gun safety education and create a lethal violence protective order to stop a potentially dangerous person from buying or possessing a firearm.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba in Santa Fe, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty)

Spurned advances provoked Texas school shooting, victim’s mother says

Candles are lit behind images of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School during a vigil in League City, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

By Liz Hampton

SANTA FE, Texas (Reuters) – A teenage boy charged with fatally shooting eight students and two teachers during a gun rampage at a Houston-area high school had been spurned by one of his victims after making aggressive advances, her mother told a newspaper.

Sadie Rodriguez, the mother of Shana Fisher, 16, who was killed in the attack, told the Los Angeles Times that her daughter rejected four months of aggressive advances from Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, who is in jail accused of murdering 10 people early on Friday at the high school in Santa Fe.

Fisher finally stood up to him and embarrassed him in class, the newspaper quoted her mother as writing in a private message to the Times.

(For graphic on timeline of major mass shootings in the United States since 2007 click https://tmsnrt.rs/2LfKug6)

“A week later he opens fire on everyone he didn’t like,” she said. “Shana being the first one.”

Rodriguez could not independently be reached for comment.

If true, it would be the second school shooting in recent months driven by such rejection.

In March, a 17-year-old Maryland high school student used his father’s gun to fatally shoot a female student with whom he had been in a recently ended relationship.

Police said Pagourtzis confessed to Friday’s killings after he was taken into custody, but authorities have offered no motive yet for the massacre, the fourth-deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. public school in modern history.

The Santa Fe Independent School District (ISD) denied accounts from some classmates that Pagourtzis had been bullied, including by a football coach.

“Administration looked into these claims and confirmed that these reports are untrue,” it said on Saturday in a statement.

Classmates at the school, which has some 1,460 students, described Pagourtzis as a quiet loner who played on the football team. He wore a black trench coat to school in the Texas heat on Friday and opened fire with a pistol and shotgun.

Mourners attend a vigil in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in League City, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Mourners attend a vigil in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in League City, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

‘THE AFTERMATH’

In Santa Fe on Sunday, many churches and businesses had signs outside with messages such as “Santa Fe strong” and “Santa Fe ISD we are here for you.”

About 100 people attended an emotional service at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church. Service dogs were in a nearby hall to help console grieving victims.

Jared Black, one of the students killed, attended a youth group at the church, and many of its members embraced his mother Pam when the family arrived.

At a mosque in another Houston suburb, mourners crowded around the coffin of 17-year-old Sabika Sheikh, a Pakistani exchange student who died in the rampage.

It was the latest rampage to stoke a long-running national debate over gun ownership, three months after a student-led gun control movement emerged from a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 teens and educators.

Many of those student activists have taken aim at the pro-gun National Rifle Association.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” NRA President Oliver North said students should not be afraid to attend class, but that his gun-rights advocacy group did not think the solution was to limit the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“I believe that we can make sure kids are protected without taking away the rights of law-abiding citizens,” North said, calling for metal detectors in schools and more use of the NRA’s offer to schools of free security assessments.

Pagourtzis has provided authorities little information about the shootings, his attorney, Nicholas Poehl, said, adding: “Honestly because of his emotional state, I don’t have a lot on that.”

Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, a Republican, told reporters that Pagourtzis obtained the firearms from his father, who had likely acquired them legally.

Abbott also said Pagourtzis wanted to commit suicide, citing the suspect’s journals, but lacked the courage to do so.

Pagourtzis’ family said in a statement it was “saddened and dismayed” by the shooting and “as shocked as anyone else” by the events. The family said it was cooperating with authorities.

(Reporting by Liz Hampton; Additional reporting by Erwin Seba in Houston and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Rich McKay and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Peter Cooney)

U.S. judge upholds Massachusetts assault weapons ban

FILE PHOTO - AR-15 rifles are displayed for sale at the Guntoberfest gun show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Friday upheld a Massachusetts law banning assault weapons including the AR-15, saying the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantee of Americans’ right to bear firearms does not cover them.

U.S. District Judge William Young in Boston ruled that assault weapons and large-capacity magazines covered by the 1998 law fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment’s personal right to bear arms.

He also rejected a challenge to an enforcement notice Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued in 2016 clarifying what under the law is a “copy” of an assault weapon. Healey announced that notice after a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

The decision released on Friday came amid renewed attention to school shootings, gun violence and firearms ownership after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty at a Florida high school in February, prompting a surge of gun control activism by teenage students.

In a 47-page ruling, Young cited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who died in 2016, as having observed that weapons that are most useful in military service may be banned. Young said the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle was such a weapon.

He acknowledged arguments by plaintiffs including the Gun Owners’ Action League who noted the AR-15’s popularity in arguing the law must be unconstitutional because it would ban a class of firearms Americans had overwhelming chosen for legal purposes.

“Yet the AR-15’s present-day popularity is not constitutionally material,” Young wrote. “This is because the words of our Constitution are not mutable. They mean the same today as they did 227 years ago when the Second Amendment was adopted.”

Healey, a Democrat, in a statement welcomed the decision.

“Strong gun laws save lives, and we will not be intimidated by the gun lobby in our efforts to end the sale of assault weapons and protect our communities and schools,” she said.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment.

They had filed their lawsuit in 2017 and based part of their case on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Scalia authored in 2008 that held for the first time that individual Americans have a right to own guns.

The justices have avoided taking up another major gun case in the years since and in November refused to hear a similar case challenging Maryland’s 2013 state ban on assault weapons.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. asset manager State Street to press gunmakers on safety efforts

FILE PHOTO: Rifles are seen at the Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. gun factory in Newport, New Hampshire January 6, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) – U.S. asset manager State Street Corp said it plans to seek details from gunmakers on how they will support the “safe and responsible use of their products,” adding to pressure on the industry after the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 people at a Florida high school.

Other firms including Bank of America Corp are also reviewing relations with the weapons industry, as social media and shareholder activism open new fronts in a long-running U.S. debate over firearms.

As a large shareholder in weapons makers such as American Outdoor Brands Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc Boston-based State Street wields extra clout including the ability to vote against directors and to back shareholder resolutions on gun safety pending at each company.

“We will be engaging with weapons manufacturers and distributors to seek greater transparency from them on the ways that they will support the safe and responsible use of their products,” State Street spokesman Andrew Hopkins said in an emailed statement.

The statement also said State Street will monitor the companies’ lobbying activities.

State Street is joining larger rival BlackRock Inc in putting weapons executives on the spot. On Feb. 22 BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said it will speak with gunmakers and distributors “to understand their response” to the Florida shooting.

Representatives for American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger did not respond to questions over the weekend, after Hopkins sent the statement on Friday evening.

State Street, with $2.8 trillion under management at Dec. 31, owns about 2 percent of the shares of both American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger, according to filings.

Bank of America said on Saturday it would ask clients who make assault rifles how they can help end mass shootings. Other financial firms have cut marketing ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) recently, including the First National Bank of Omaha, which will not renew a contract to issue an NRA-branded Visa card.

The fund manager statements were striking given that many major investors try to steer clear of political debates to avoid alienating customers. But asset managers lately have supported more social and environmental measures as sought by their clients.

Both American Outdoor and Sturm Ruger face shareholder resolutions filed by religious investors calling for them to report on their gun safety efforts, aimed for their shareholder meetings later this year.

Patrick McGurn, special counsel for proxy adviser Institutional Shareholder Services, said directors on the boards of both should expect tough questions from shareholders.

“Guns join opioids, cyber hacks, sexual harassment, human rights and climate change as top-of-mind risks that shareholders will want to discuss with boards during engagements and at annual meetings,” McGurn said via e-mail.

Not all top fund firms are taking a public stance on the weapons debate.

Vanguard Group Inc said in a statement e-mailed by a spokesman on Friday that while it discusses with companies whose shares it owns “the impact of their business on society,” the Pennsylvania fund manager also “believes we can be more effective in advocating for change by not publicly discussing the nature of engagements with specific companies by name.”

A spokesman for Fidelity Investments said via e-mail on Sunday that the firm generally does not comment on individual companies or how it plans to vote on proxy resolutions.

“We do our best to see that our investment decisions are in line with our fiduciary obligation to ensure that every Fidelity fund is managed based on the investment objective described in its prospectus,” she said.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Susan Thomas)

House Speaker Ryan: Florida shooting shouldn’t threaten right to own guns

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks at a news conference with Republican leaders after a closed conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan, in a round of interviews with conservative radio shows on Thursday, said the Florida school shooting that killed at least 17 people on Wednesday should not threaten citizens’ rights to own guns.

“There’s more questions than answers at this stage,” the Republican lawmaker said in an interview with Tom Katz on Indiana radio station WIBC about the mass shooting less than 24 hours earlier.

“I don’t think that means you then roll that conversation into taking away citizens’ rights – taking away a law-abiding citizen’s rights. Obviously this conversation typically goes there. Right now, I think we need to take a breath and collect the facts.”

(Reporting by Lisa LambertEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)