Please, Please Buy This Gun Company

Posted May 14, 2018 9:02 p.m. EDT

Remington Outdoor, one of the country’s oldest and largest gun-makers, is getting ready to emerge from bankruptcy.

The question is whether somebody — anybody — will buy the company, especially at such a politically and emotionally polarized time for the gun industry.

The usual suspects of potential buyers are circling, including rival gun manufacturers like Sturm, Ruger & Co. and some small financiers willing to accept whatever criticism would come from buying Remington.

More tantalizing is a pie-in-the-sky idea: whether a beneficent billionaire, like Michael R. Bloomberg, could buy the company and either try to transform it or shut it down — a sort of philanthropic euthanasia in the name of gun control.

Yet all of those options have challenges. So here’s a practical idea that should be considered more than just a thought experiment:

What if the big banks that have provided financing to Remington during its bankruptcy were to back the ambitions of one or more of the big private equity firms willing to buy Remington with a plan to transform the company into the most advanced and responsible gun manufacturer in the country?

After all, virtually all the banks have a “social impact” unit or at least an initiative meant to “do good.” And so do many private equity firms, like TPG and Bain Capital.

And they would not be out to kill the business; quite the opposite. They could create a profitable model for the rest of the industry using technology and sound sales policies to reinvent the modern-gun manufacturer.

A re-imagined Remington with a new management and mandate could develop smart-gun technology. It could back fingerprint technology mean to prevent anyone who is not the gun’s owner from shooting it, a measure that could greatly reduce suicides and the potential for guns to be stolen. It could add an identity stamp to ammunition fired from any of its guns. It could also establish and standardize responsible sales policies for retailers to sell its firearms.

What would happen, for instance, if a consortium were to come together so that the banks offered the buyer a below-market loan, giving a socially responsible investor the advantage of a lower cost of capital? What would happen if one of the big retail chains like Walmart and Dick’s — both of which have already established that they only want to sell guns in a responsible way — were to guarantee distribution, sales and marketing support?

Such an approach would be in the best interests of all of the players, the banks and retailers included.

Of course, it would takes leadership, and a substantial amount of courage. The National Rifle Association and other industry groups have been pushing back hard against even the slightest addition of restrictions on gun sales.

There is pressure from within the government, too. Just two weeks ago, Michael Piwowar, a Republican commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, used a regularly scheduled meeting with Citigroup executives, one intended to discuss various banking regulations, to berate them over the bank’s new policy distancing it from financing gun manufacturers, according to Bloomberg News.

Bank of America, which has also started putting gun-makers at arm’s length, was criticized along with Citigroup by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who wrote a letter admonishing it for “using their market power to manage social policy.”

Before it established its policy, Bank of America decided to provide financing to Remington. It insists that it will not offer such financing going forward.

Yet the opportunity for Bank of America — which said it had “more than $11.3 billion in assets with a clearly defined environmental, social and governance approach” as of the end of 2016 — could be a perfect candidate to take a piece of Remington. Other banks, like JPMorgan Chase, which also owns a stake in Remington as a result of previous financing, says it is trying to reduce its relationship with gun-makers. It, too, has been a big proponent of impact investing.

And here’s a big opportunity.

To be sure, efforts to invest and develop smart gun initiatives have long been troubled. Ron Conway, a revered investor in Silicon Valley, has for years been investing in gun companies employing new technology, and has seen little success. The NRA and others have pressured retailers not to sell the new firearms. (That’s why a buying consortium that includes retailers is so important, and why a billionaire buying a gun company would quickly lead to a boycott.)

Investors have been hard to find. After all, many people who are interested in gun control cannot stomach the thought of actually investing in any kind of gun company, no matter how responsible it may be. Many of the banks, which have pledged to stop backing gun-makers, might now find it difficult to change course, even for a company that is aimed at changing the industry.

The gun complex clearly does not want change, but the biggest opportunity for change may come from investors who can get themselves on the inside, as I described in a previous column. Last week, Sturm Ruger opposed a shareholder proposal to detail its plans to monitor violence associated with their guns and develop safer products; the shareholders prevailed.

Those investors, which included a group of nuns, have the right idea. Those who share their vision of a safer gun company would have the opportunity to not only make a social impact, but reap the profits that come with innovation.

Make no mistake: There is absolutely a market for a gun company focused on safety technology. A poll conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers and published online by the American Journal of Public Health showed 59 percent of Americans were willing to buy a smart gun.

Will someone step up to make it happen?