Odds are, you have money in firearms.

And for those horrified by Sunday's massacre in Las Vegas, the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, that's particularly troublesome.

For the past few years a small but growing band of investors have begun a divestment campaign around gun stocks as the number of mass shootings has increased. Through websites and movements such as Goodbye Gun Stocks and the Campaign to Unload, they have pushed investment banks to pull funds out of major gun and ammunition manufacturers. In particular, movement leaders have focused their efforts on the three biggest publicly traded companies: American Outdoor Brands Corporation (AOBC) and its subsidiary Smith & Wesson; Sturm, Rugger and Company (RGR) ; and the Olin Corporation (OLN) .

They do it because gun companies show up in the portfolios of just about every major trading institution, and in holdings of almost anyone with a mutual fund or 401(k).

If you hold a retirement account or a broad fund with any of America's biggest investment groups, including Vanguard, BlackRock (BLK) , Goldman Sachs (GS) or Fidelity Investments, your money has probably bought at least some shares in weapons and ammo. According to one article by Mother Jones, Vanguard alone owned nearly 15% of Sturm, Rugger and Company in 2016.

For good reason, too. Gun companies have done extremely well over the last few years, suffering only in recent months since the Trump inauguration. Campaigning against Democrats and the administration of President Obama proved so lucrative that one manufacturer alone saw a 19% increase in sales going into the 2016 fall election. If past trends hold, sales will surge again in the wake of Sunday's mass shooting in Las Vegas. This is often attributed to a fear on the part of enthusiasts that shootings will spur regulation, and surges can lead to stock price gains from 6 to 17%. And from an investment standpoint, fire arm and defense technology stocks spiked after Sunday's shooting. 

Guns do well, so firms put money into their stocks. The question is whether individual investors want their money contributing to that cause.

For many people, the answer is no. What's less clear is what, exactly, they can do about it.

Investment firms bundle gun stocks into their portfolios, as mentioned, because these stocks are high performers. It's the same reason why they invest in fossil fuels, tobacco and other products which individual investors might find distasteful. Their mission isn't guided by conscience but by fund performance.

Scenes from Las Vegas attack.
Scenes from Las Vegas attack.

But a growing movement called ethical investment resists that approach. According to advocates, investors have both a responsibility and a right to know what's in their portfolios. They don't want their money supporting companies that issue "man cards" as a reward for suburban civilians who buy weapons of war.

"Aligning your ethical and financial gains will become the mainstream behavior," wrote Goodbye Gun Stocks founder Keywon Chung in a Medium post. "Fixing the problem of gun violence requires more than one thing: Better education, reducing poverty, improving background/mental health screening systems, smart gun tech. And it requires a financial system primed to support its innovation."

As a personal expression, ethical investing is a reasonable (if somewhat challenging) money management strategy. Many Americans feel increasingly angry at an industry and advertising campaigns that seem to swing between fear mongering and barely coded calls for domestic political violence. With a bit of research investors can, indeed, pull their retirement accounts out of weapons without risking significant value.

What they probably can't do is have any real impact on the gun industry.

Across numerous industries such as guns and fossil fuels, advocates have begun turning to divestment campaigns as a way of spurring social change. They hope that by putting pressure on an industry's portfolio they can achieve the pressure that doesn't come from the consumer market (as targeted industries generally enjoy otherwise healthy sales).

Yet despite hopes, ethical investing and divestment as a tool of protest has little effect on industry politics or practices. American Outdoor Brands Corporation's Smith & Wesson isn't going to go defunct just because investors stop lining up. At best, a successful campaign would push the stock prices down to a fire sale, spurring a major buyback by the company itself.

That won't happen either, though. The overwhelming evidence is that divestment campaigns as a form of financial protest have a negligible impact on stock prices. Individual investors can express personal disgust by pulling their money out of an industry that believes that the best solution to gun violence is a nation of armed civilians who live in fear of not shooting first.

As a matter of personal expression, many people may want to do that. Investors should go in open-eyed, however, and understand that this will not constitute a particularly influential decision from a financial point of view. Divestment doesn't scare away other investor's from a targeted industry, but nor does it hurt a company's bottom line; not even when undertaken on a mass scale, with pension funds and universities drawing out.

People who want to take a public stand will still need to do so through politics and public policy, not finance.

They can put their mind to supporting other forms of change as well. After every mass shooting gun control opponents like to argue that America has too many guns to effectively regulate anymore; the hundreds of millions of weapons in circulation the make that genie too hard to put back in the bottle.

Yet with more than one mass shooting per day in the United States, activism may be warranted.

And whether or not America has too many guns on the streets, we could always stop making more bullets.

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Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 3.


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