Religious sisters sue Smith & Wesson for ‘facilitating’ mass shootings

Ammunition for a semi automatic rifle Credit Guy J Sagi Shutterstock CNA Credit: Guy J. Sagi/Shutterstock

Four congregations of Catholic religious sisters filed a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson on Tuesday, accusing the company of participating in illegal marketing tactics that they said attract a “dangerous category of consumers” and facilitate “an unrelenting and growing stream of killings.”

The suit was filed in district court in Clark County, Nevada, and demands a trial by jury regarding the sisters’ accusations.  

The four congregations — the Adrian Dominican Sisters; Sisters of Bon Secours USA; Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia; and Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, U.S.-Ontario Province — filed their lawsuit as Smith & Wesson stockholders.

The sisters said in a joint Dec. 5 statement that their goal is to stop Smith & Wesson from manufacturing and selling any more AR-15 rifles, which as they point out have been used in several recent mass shootings.

“These rifles have no purpose other than mass murder,” the sisters said. “By design, they inflict the greatest number of casualties with maximum bodily harm in the shortest amount of time.”

The sisters collectively own 1,000 shares in Smith & Wesson, according to The Wall Street Journal. Though a small percentage of the company’s total shares, this amount gives the congregations the right to file legal action.

The suit, called a “derivative complaint,” was filed against the Smith & Wesson board and executive officers. Neither the complaint nor the sisters’ statement said how long the sisters have been shareholders of the weapons-manufacturing company. Their attorney Jeffrey Norton also declined to say.

Their suit, however, does state that they have been investors “at all relevant times” to their complaint.

The sisters said that Smith & Wesson’s leadership is violating its fiduciary duties by “prioritizing short-term profit over long-term risk.”

“The company is intent on marketing and selling AR-15 rifles in whatever manner results in the most sales — even if the marketing is illegal and attracts a dangerous category of buyers, facilitates an unrelenting and growing stream of killings, and causes the company to face an ever-increasing and substantial likelihood of liability that threatens its long-term existence,” the sisters said in their statement.

In their suit, the sisters call on Smith & Wesson to return to being “a successful beacon of responsible gun ownership” by stopping all manufacturing and selling of AR-15s, which they call “military-grade, mass-killing assault weapons.”

Smith & Wesson is an American firearms manufacturer founded in 1852. It currently operates out of Nevada and Tennessee. The company makes and sells a wide array of firearms, including ArmaLite-type rifles, commonly referred to as “AR-15s,” which it has been selling since 2006.  

AR-15s are semi-automatic rifles that are legal for ownership by civilians in most U.S. states.

The sisters claim that Smith & Wesson AR-15s have “been used by numerous perpetrators of highly publicized mass shootings” since 2012 and that “it was Smith & Wesson’s targeted marketing practices that ensured that its AR-15 rifles would be purchased and used by emotionally troubled young men through advertisements designed to take advantage of young men’s impulsive behavior and lack of self-control.”

The congregations argue in their suit that Smith & Wesson’s marketing techniques violate a 2000 agreement the company made with the federal government to not market in such a way as to appeal to juveniles or criminals.

“The company’s executives and board members have since chosen to flagrantly ignore the safe marketing practices … and instead focus on the continued targeting of young consumers, eschewing any effort to mitigate the potential harm to the company caused by such practices,” the sisters assert.

Further, the suit alleges that the Smith & Wesson’s board and executives “intentionally fail to take any steps to prevent or curb Smith & Wesson’s continued marketing and sale of the company’s AR-15 rifles in those jurisdictions [that ban the sale of AR-15s].”

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Mark Smith, the president and CEO of Smith & Wesson, told CNA in a statement that Smith & Wesson “is proud to empower law-abiding American citizens with the ability to defend themselves and their families from harm.”

“This frivolous lawsuit is simply another instance in their long history of attempting to hijack and abuse the shareholder advocacy process to harm our reputation and company,” he said, adding that “this activist group is not interested in the best interests of the company or its stockholders.”

Norton, the sisters’ attorney, said in a Dec. 5 statement that the congregations of sisters “have long sought corporate responsibility” through “their shareholder activism,” which is the practice of buying stock in a company expressly to use that share to try to change how the organization is run.

This is not the first time this group of sisters has sued a company through shareholder activism. The sisters have also filed similar lawsuits against Hyatt Hotels and General Electric in the past, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal.

All four congregations are also part of a group called the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which has net assets in the low millions and, according to its website, is a “coalition of faith- and values-based investors who view shareholder engagement with corporations as a powerful catalyst for change.”

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