Guns, Ordinary Business, and Shareholder Proposals: Reordering the Priorities of the SEC Staff (Part 2)
We are discussing Trinity Wall Street v. Wal-Mart.
In December 2013, Trinity Wall Street submitted to Wal-Mart a shareholder proposal that called for greater oversight of products that could impair the public safety, damage the company's reputation, or offend family/community values. Specifically, the proposal sought an amendment to the charter of the Compensation, Nominating, and Governance Committee that would require:
- Oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company should sell a product that:
- 1) especially endangers public safety and well-being;
- 2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or
- 3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company’s promotion of its brand.
The broad nature of the proposal notwithstanding, it was specifically intended to reach the sale of guns equipped with high capacity magazines. As the proposal stated:
- This oversight and reporting is intended to cover policies and standards that would be applicable to determining whether or not the company should sell guns equipped with magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition (“high capacity magazines”) and to balancing the benefits of selling such guns against the risks that these sales pose to the public and to the Company’s reputation and brand value.
The supporting statement had this to say:
- The proposal, advanced by stockholder Trinity Church Wall Street, seeks to ensure appropriate and transparent Board oversight of the sale by the company of products that especially endanger public safety and well-being, risk impairing the company’s reputation, or offend the family and community values integral to the company’s brand.
- The company respects family and community interests by choosing not to sell certain products such as music that depicts violence or sex and high capacity magazines separately from a gun, but lacks policies and standards to ensure transparent and consistent merchandizing decisions across product categories. This results in the company’s sale of products, such as guns equipped with high capacity magazines, that facilitate mass killings, even as it prohibits sales of passive products such as music that merely depict such violent rampages.
- The example of guns equipped with high capacity magazines, which are on sale at the company’s stores, is instructive in other ways. There is a substantial question regarding whether these guns are well suited to hunting or shooting sports; it is beyond doubt that they are well suited to mass killing, and tragically more effective for the latter purpose, than are the handguns equipped to fire ten or fewer rounds that the company chooses not to sell except in Alaska. The former reduce opportunities for people to flee or overwhelm a shooter during reloading and have enabled many mass killings, including those at Newtown, Oak Creek, Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech and Columbine.
- While guns equipped with high capacity magazines are just one example of a product whose sale poses significant risks to the public and to the company’s reputation and brand, their sale illustrates a lack of reasonable consistency that this proposal seeks to address through Board level oversight. This responsibility seems appropriate for the Compensation, Nominating and Governance Committee, which is charged with related responsibilities.
The company sought exclusion of the proposal as related to the ordinary business of the corporation. Despite the ongoing public debate over the regulation of firearms, the SEC staff agreed that the proposal could be excluded. We will look at the reasoning in the next post.