Who Profited from the Gun that Killed Shireen Abu Akleh?

Image by LittleSis, photo of Sturm Ruger Mini-14 rifles via Wikimedia Commons

On May 11th 2022, Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed. It is widely believed that she was intentionally targeted by Israeli armed forces. A CNN investigation concluded that video evidence and witness testimony “suggest that Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces” while doing her job and wearing a clearly marked “Press” vest and helmet. Last week, the Palestinian Attorney General concluded in a new report that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was a 5.56 mm round fired from a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle. 

The Connecticut-based company Sturm, Ruger & Company, Inc. produces this Ruger Mini. Ruger was originally founded in 1949 to manufacture firearms for the commercial sporting market. Today, it is one of the largest publicly traded gun companies in the US. 

A network of investors, banks and directors are the real power behind Ruger, providing the company financing and governing as it profits from harm like that committed against Shireen. These profiteers behind Ruger include major corporate actors like BlackRock and Vanguard, as well as board members tied to a host of harmful industries and causes.

Ruger’s Top Owners & Banks

According to Ruger’s most recent proxy statement, two single asset managers – BlackRock and Vanguard – own more than a quarter of the company. BlackRock – the world’s number one asset manager – owns the largest chunk with 15.9% (or 2,792,671 shares) – an unusually large stake even for BlackRock to have in a company.

BlackRock and its CEO Larry Fink have made gestures in recent years around the social responsibility of investors. Fink’s 2018 letter to CEOs, for example, stated that “[s]ociety is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” and that “[t]o prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

Nevertheless, Blackrock remains the largest shareholder of the top three publicly-traded gun companies. BlackRock seems to know this is a problem – indeed, it has made statements distancing itself from the gun industry’s harm. For example, a BlackRock spokesman recently said – as paraphrased by the New York Times – that “BlackRock’s holdings of Ruger did not mean the company had taken an active investment position on guns.”

But these statements and positions are an evasion on BlackRock’s part. As Ruger’s top shareholder, BlackRock is in a stronger position than anyone else to hold the company to account. However it describes the nature of its involvement, the truth is that it has a major stake in Ruger that it benefits from, and is one of the few actors with the power to do something.

The same goes with Vanguard, Sturm Ruger’s second largest owner. Vanguard Group – the world’s second largest asset manager – owns 10.7% of the company (1,888,300 shares). Vanguard has also come under heavy scrutiny for its investments in harmful industries. As we reported earlier this year with Action Center on Race and the Economy, Vanguard “oversees nearly $6 billion in investments in high risk sectors in the studied funds that perpetuate environmental and racial injustices.”

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Renaissance Technologies, Sturm Ruger’s third largest owner, is a hedge fund based in New York State. Renaissance owns 5.9% of the company (1,030,575 shares) according to Sturm Ruger’s 2022 proxy statement. This investment has increased dramatically since 2018, when we reported on Renaissance Technologies’ 1.2% stake in the company.

James Simons, the CEO of Renaissance Technologies, is a major donor to the Democratic Party. According to OpenSecrets, Simons and his wife Marilyn gave more than $24.5 million to Super PACs supporting Democrats in the 2020 federal elections, including $11 million to the Senate Majority PAC, $5 million to the House Majority PAC, $4 million to Priorities USA Action, $3 million to Unite the Country, $1.5 million to Strategic Victory Fund, and $10,000 to Just the Truth PAC. James and Marilyn Simons also made maximum donations for a combined $139,400 to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who has made gun control a main campaign issue in her electoral campaign in the wake of the white supremacist attack in Buffalo.

It’s not just the asset managers and hedge funds that own Ruger that prop the company up – banks do this as well. For example, Regions Bank, the biggest bank in Alabama, provides a $40 million line of credit for Ruger. Wells Fargo also has done business with Ruger, issuing the gun company a $40 million line of credit in 2018. A 2018 Bloomberg article called Wells Fargo the “Go-To Bank for Gunmakers and the NRA” and stated that the bank had “helped two of the biggest U.S. firearm and ammunition companies access $431.1 million in loans and bonds since December 2012.” (In 2020, Wells Fargo said its relationship with the NRA was “declining.”)

Ruger’s Board of Directors

Ruger has a board of directors whose members govern the company and personally profit from it. These directors own hundreds of thousands of dollars – and even millions – in Ruger stock.

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Moreover, some of these directors who benefit from weapons’ sales are also tied to harmful companies and reactionary causes that contribute to upholding gun violence in the US and oppressive regimes worldwide:

  • Fossil fuel and extractive industries. Ronald Whitaker served as the president and CEO of Hyco, a company that produces technology that eases fracking and fossil fuel extraction. Philip Widman served as the Chief Finance Officer and Senior Vice President of the Terex Corporation, a construction equipment giant with focuses that include energy and mining. (Widman and his wife have also donated to the National Right to Life Political Action Committee, the PAC of the oldest anti-abortion organization in the US). Widman took in $208,360 in 2021 as a Ruger director and his 27,829 company shares are worth $1,848,958 as of June 6, 2022. Additionally, Michael O’Fifer held leadership positions in Mueller Industries, which has committed a number of environmental violations, including being one of the companies held responsible for soil contamination in Chicago.
  • White supremacist ideology. Sandra “Sandy” Froman helped William Shockley promote white supremacist eugenics theories while at Stanford University, though she has claimed that she does not remember working with him. White supremacist ideas like Shockley’s have contributed to a growing far-right threat and escalating violent attacks on Black people, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and others. Froman earned $190,864 from Sturm Ruger in 2021 and owns 13,570 shares of the company which are worth $901,590 as of June 6, 2022
  • Private prisons. Although he has stepped down, it is worth mentioning Michael Jacobi. While chairman of  Ruger’s board, he refused to engage in dialogue with shareholders concerned about gun safety in the past. In 2021, Jacobi earned $198,092 from Sturm Ruger and took in  6,359 shares of company stock, worth $422,491 as of June 6, 2022. He was also on the board of CoreCivic for 16 years. CoreCivic is the largest private prison company in the US, owning and managing private prisons and detention centers across the country. CoreCivic and the private prison industry have come under widespread scrutiny, with many banks fleeing from them to avoid the bad publicity of the association. Numerous scandals – from mishandling Covid-19 outbreaks to forcing detainees to work for little pay while being threatened and deprived of basic toiletries – have occurred in its facilities.

Although not surprising given their role overseeing a gun company, it is worth mentioning that these board members are tied to major reactionary forces in the US that contribute to preventing actions in response to the increasing number of mass shootings.

  • Sandy Froman has a lifetime position on the NRA Executive Council and has been on their board since 1992. She also served as the NRA’s Vice President from 1998 to 2005 and President from 2005 to 2007. 
  • Ruger is a frequent donor to the NRA. In 2011, they pledged $1 to the NRA for every Ruger gun sold as part of its first “Million Gun Challenge.” By the end of the campaign in 2012, Rugers had donated $1.2 million to the NRA. In 2015 and 2016, Sturm Ruger directed $10 million to the NRA and $1.5 million in the following two years. 
  • Sturm Ruger’s CEO Chris Killoy is on the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) board of governors. The NSSF calls itself “The Firearm Industry Trade Association.” Benefitting from gun sales from multiple angles, Killow is also a board member for Velocity Outdoor, another manufacturer of rifles, pistol, and ammunition products. In 2021, he was compensated $3,435,000 by Ruger, and he took in $9,557,993 from the company between 2019 and 2021 in total. His 150,395 shares of Ruger stock as reported in Ruger’s 2022 proxy filing alone are worth close to $10 million as of June 6, 2022. 
  • Philip Widman is on the board of Vectrus Inc., which ranks in the top 100 arms manufacturers in the world.

Oddly, these directors who profit from destructive weapons are able to burnish their reputations through other positions. For example, Ronald Whitetaker, according to his LinkedIn page, is on the advisory board at the Indiana University for the Manufacturing Policy Initiative, which is part of the Public and Environmental Affairs school. He is also – again, according to his LinkedIn page –  the vice chair of the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia. Georgia is one of the states with a “guns everywhere” bill that was signed into law in 2014. Savannah witnesses gun violence often. Its state university had a shooting this past April

Ruger’s Dangerous Global Reach

Ruger describes itself as a company of “Arms Makers for Responsible Citizens” and as a model of corporate and community responsibility. But the truth is that the weapons they produce and distribute are used against journalists, unarmed protestors, children, and BIPOC communities.

by Catholic Church of England and Wales via Flickr

In its latest proxy statement, Ruger also reaffirmed its “Deep Commitment to Human Rights”. Ironically, their filing also shows that the company opposed a proposal to uphold the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by committing for a human rights impact assessment, which a majority of shareholders ultimately voted for. The company stated that it opposed this resolution because “the outcome that proponents advocate and actually seek will harm the company, destroy shareholder value, and undermine the Second Amendment rights of the Company’s customers.” The proposal shareholders approved is nonbinding.

The risk factors in the company’s annual report specify that “misconducts, fraud or improper activities by our employees or contractors could have a material adverse impact on our business and reputation. Such misconduct could include the failure to comply with federal, state, local or foreign government procurement regulations.” But in the case of Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder, the misconduct committed by its client and customer – the Israeli government – goes against international law. Human rights experts, for example, have said her killing “may constitute a war crime.”

Ruger and Smith & Wesson, another major gun manufacturer, are being pressured by other nations as well around the harm caused by their gun business. For example, Mexico filed a $10 billion lawsuit against the companies last August holding them responsible for the deadly floods of weapons crossing into the country.

It’s not far-fetched to suggest that tragedy, crisis, and mass discontent have left companies like Ruger at an advantage. Gun sales in the US increased significantly during the pandemic. Based on their proxy statement filings, Ruger’s sales increased 28% in 2021 compared to 2020, with production also increasing 30% and earnings increasing 73% in that period. The share prices of gun and ammunition companies often rise after mass shootings, and investors often anticipate a spike in sales ahead of calls for stricter gun laws. Ruger gained more than 4% after the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Simply put: Ruger profits from selling weapons that are involved in the deaths and oppression of people around the world.

The upward trend of guns and military budgets in the US is also reflected in the increasing military aid the country gives Israel unconditionally. The US is the biggest supplier of military aid to Israel. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 83% of Israel’s arms imports came from the US between 1950 to 2020. Also, 80% of all aid that the US has sent Israel since 1967 has come in the form of military aid. In 2020 alone, the US  provided $3.8 billion, which is part of a larger $38 billion deal over a 10 year period.

Despite the Leahy Law in the US that prohibits the export of US defense articles to military units being used in human rights abuses, no Israeli unit has been held accountable under this law. These military aid deals are used to purchase weapons from companies like Ruger. The campaign No Ruger Guns to Israel has documented over 200 cases of Palestinians being killed or injured by Ruger guns.

Sturm Ruger is directly benefiting from the gun violence in the US and abroad. Its close connection to the NRA helps it push for policies, such as less gun control, that advances its profit-making. What is happening in Palestine is not removed from what is happening in the US with its increased gun violence. The consequences of the gun lobby and weapons manufacturers in the US have destructive and deeply unjust consequences all over the world, including in the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh.

Ruger is one of the stakeholders personally invested in the upkeep of the hyper-militarized and over-weaponized societies – and major firms like BlackRock and Vanguard prop up and benefit from the company’s business.