Newtown families, advocates pressure Cerberus to drop gun manufacturer

Neil Heslin holds a photo of his son Jesse Lewis. His son was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting last December. The photo in Heslin's hands was taken just days before the shooting, Heslin said.  Credit: Unload the Guns
Neil Heslin holds a photo of his son Jesse Lewis. His son was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting last December. The photo in Heslin’s hands was taken just days before the shooting, Heslin said.
Credit: Unload the Guns

A still-grieving Newtown father and a coalition of gun control advocates and New York politicians rallied outside Cerberus Capital Management Wednesday to call on the private equity firm to uphold a promise they say was made to them nine months ago after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

On Dec. 18, four days after the Dec. 14 mass shooting that took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults, Cerberus released a statement vowing they would sell Freedom Group, the manufacturer of the gun used in the shooting. Cerberus holds a 94 percent stake in Freedom Group. A recent survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association based in Newtown, reported that retail sales in 2012 exceeded those in 2011. Purchases of assault-style rifles like the Bushmaster model led all others.

“Cerberus made a promise to us, a promise that we heard in Sandy Hook,” insisted Monte Frank, a Newtown resident and activist. “They issued an IOU and we’re here today to collect on that debt.”

Frank was aggravated that “nine months later [they] haven’t sold a single share,” and that in the time that has passed, the Freedom Group “sold more guns than it has before.”

“In its second quarter its sales were up 51 percent,” Frank said. The gun control debate has in fact been very good for gun sales: according to Bloomberg News, Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger recently posted their highest respective annual earnings since at least 2000.

Frank accused Cerberus of allowing or enabling the Freedom Group to continue to fund the National Rifle Association’s fight against background checks.

“Did you really think that we would forget about your promise after the Freedom Group’s Bushmaster assault weapon was used to murder 20 of our children and six of our educators?” Frank demanded, addressing Cerberus from in front of their headquarters. “Everyday since 12/14 our children live in fear. … They’re scared to go to school because of what the Freedom Group’s weapon did.”

He noted that the weapon was similar to that used in the Aurora, Col. movie theater shooting “and you did nothing after that event.”

“You made a promise in Newtown and we expect you to keep it,” Frank added, vowing vowed to return “over and over again until you keep that promise.”

Frank stood beside Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was murdered at Sandy Hook. Heslin held his son’s sixth-grade class photo, taken weeks before the boy was killed.

Referring to the Bushmaster as “the weapon that took my son’s life,” Heslin said: “They’re letting my son Jesse down. I hope that they will keep their promise and sell their interest in the Freedom Group.”

Heslin spoke slowly, quietly, deliberately and also expressed concern that the profits the Freedom Group accrues goes to lobbying efforts against background checks. He also asked for “continued support for background checks and mental health” resources.

NAACP President Hazel Dukes also spoke, and pointed to the recent near-shooting in Harlem that almost harmed “kindergarten children on a bus with wild bullets flying.”

Cerberus spokesman Peter Duda declined to comment, saying only that their Dec. 18, 2012 statement still stands. In that statement, they maintained that their primary responsibility is to their clients whose money they invest, but vowed “as a firm” to “immediately engage in a formal process to sell our investment in Freedom Group.”

Duda declined to comment further on that process, but according to sources, there is in fact an on-going sales process to sell Freedom Group.

In July, Bloomberg reported News reported that Cerberus had indeed put Freedom Group on the auction block on Dec. 18, but many major banks — includingJP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Barclays — had refused to advise Cerberus on the sale or represent potential buyers as of January. But according to Bloomberg sources in July, investment firm Lazard Ltd. was helping Cerberus with the sale.

According to Bloomberg News, Freedom Group is the biggest U.S. manufacturer of guns and ammunitions. Cerberus was at the top of a “Dirty Dozen” list Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s office made in January of the city’s twelve biggest corporate investors with holdings in the gun industry.

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat



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