Assault-style weapons used in the massacres in Newtown, Connecticut and now San Bernardino, California — two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history — were brought to market by the same company: Freedom Group, a consortium of firearm manufacturers that The New York Times called “the most powerful and mysterious force in the American commercial gun industry today.” The holding company in turn was created and has been owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a New York-based private equity firm that publicly announced it was walking away from the firearms business in the wake of the Sandy Hook slayings.
But Cerberus never sold its collection of firearms brands to an outside buyer. Instead, in May it spun off its gun companies into a separate financial entity in which Cerebrus, as a firm, owns no stake. The new entity, the Times has noted, is owned by unnamed Cerberus executives, managers of the underlying gun companies, “and any investors who choose not to cash out.” With a Freedom Group product showing up at the scene of last week’s shooting, those executives and investors are now linked, via their shares, to a second sensational case of gun violence.
Cerberus, which manages some $25 billion, faced little competition in the firearms industry when it began snatching up gun makers about a decade ago. It brought together its gun holdings as the Freedom Group in 2007. Today, the gun consortium does business under the name Remington Outdoor Company. It also holds the top market share position in the modern sporting rifle category, which includes AR-15s, largely because it includes the brands Bushmaster and DPMS (Defense Procurement Manufacturing Services) Panther Arms.
Bushmaster, acquired by Cerberus in 2006, makes the XM15-E2S rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. DPMS, meanwhile, manufactures the .223 caliber semiautomatic rifle that was used by one of the shooters in last week’s mass shooting, which left 14 dead and 20 others wounded.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Bushmaster rifles flew off the shelves, driven by fears of new restrictions on the weapons. Freedom Group made $94 million in profits from gun sales in the 11 months after the rampage, thanks in part to that bump in sales. During the same period the previous year, the company had generated a net profit of only $500,000.
But before Freedom Group reaped its windfall, Cerberus declared its intention to cash out of the firearms industry altogether.
Calling the Sandy Hook shooting “a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,” co-founder and CEO Stephen Feinberg announced four days after the massacre that the firm was selling Freedom Group, pricing the holding company at $1 billion. Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger signaled interest, but The Wall Street Journal reported that because of the negative publicity, some investment banks refused to help Cerberus with the sale.
As Cerberus failed to find buyers, some investors grew impatient. In April 2013, four months after Newtown, the California state teachers’ pension plan (CalSTRS), which manages $193 billion in retirement funds, approved a plan to pull its $3 million from Freedom Group because the company markets weapons that are banned in the state of California.
Two years later, Cerberus finally addressed their concerns. In a letter to investors this May, the firm announced that it would offer them a way to cash out: It transferred ownership of Remington Outdoor to a new financial entity and let investors sell back their shares. This June, the CalSTERS board did just that, finalizing its divestment.
“As a result of the transaction, no Cerberus fund or account has any ownership stake in Remington,” Peter Duda of Weber Shandwick, the public relations firm that represents Cerberus, told The Trace.
As the business press reports on another surge in gun sales amid security concerns and renewed interest in tougher gun laws, Freedom Group remains a major player in the sporting rifle market. It continues to introduce new innovations in assault-style weaponry. This spring, the Freedom-owned Remington Defense division, which is staffed by former U.S. Special Operations personnel, made some of its military rifles available to civilians for the first time, to the delight of firearms enthusiasts. Two of the new military-grade rifle systems have “the design and calibers to send long-distance shooters’ hearts racing,” Elwood Smith wrote in Gun Digest. One of them, the long-sought-after M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle, can hit a target from 3,937 feet away.
[Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post/Getty Images]