Large percentages of Americans favor limits on handgun sales, according to most polls. But how strong are those feelings? If you deplore pistols, would you own a mutual fund that invests in companies that produce them?
That question is being asked by the Calvert Group of mutual funds, in Bethesda, Md. Calvert offers eight funds that specialize in so-called "socially responsible investing" -- buying stocks that do no harm.
Its Web site -- www.calvertgroup.com -- contains a search service called "Know What You Own," based on data developed by the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, D.C. You can enter the name of your U.S. or international mutual fund and find out if it owns any one of eight publicly traded, civilian gun or ammunition manufacturers.
Here's the IRRC's U.S. list: Blount International, Olin Corp. and Sturm, Ruger & Co. The international companies: Creditanstalt A.G., IMI PLC, SIG Schweizerische Industrie, SNC Lavalin Group and Tomkins PLC (Tomkins also trades in the U.S.)
At latest count, 249 mutual funds own at least one of these stocks, Calvert spokesperson Elizabeth Laurienzo told my associate, Dori Perrucci.
The largest number of deaths resulting from injuries in the U.S. are associated with motor vehicles, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The fatality count came to 43,591 in 1997 (the latest data available).
Guns came in second, with 32,436 deaths (suicides, murders and accidents). Handguns have been blamed for nearly three-quarters of the body count.
Last April, Calvert asked a polling firm, Yankelovich Partners, to test investors' awareness of socially responsible mutual funds. Among the findings: Of 860 fund investors called, 44 percent said they probably wouldn't buy a fund that owns stock in a gun manufacturer.
But investors rarely pay attention to the stocks their mutual fund holds. That's why Calvert started its search service. You can also use it to see if your fund owns one of the 31 tobacco stocks. In a few weeks, it will add nuclear power to the list.
There are currently 52 socially responsible funds, according to Morningstar in Chicago, including stock funds, bond funds and international funds. Together, they manage almost $9.4 billion.
They all screen out "sin stocks" (tobacco, gambling and alcohol). A few avoid stocks disapproved by conservative Catholics, evangelical Christians, women, gays or Muslims.
The vast majority, however, might be called "green" funds. They avoid defense contractors, nuclear power, companies with product-safety issues, and companies with poor environmental, equal-hiring, foreign-sweatshop or human-rights records.
You'll find a list of most of the greens, and their performance records, at www.socialinvest.org. For just their names and locations, send $2 for the Social Investment Forum directory, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 600, Washington D.C., 20006.
The no-load Domini Social Equity Fund (tracking an index of 400 suitable stocks) has outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index for the past one and three years and tied it over five years. It's seven years old, and has $1.4 billion under management.
The four-year-old, no-load Citizens Index Fund (following 300 stocks) manages $584 million and has outperformed Domini over the past one and three years. Consultant Jon Hale, of Morningstar Institutional Consulting, finds Citizen's index a little more aggressive and growth oriented than Domini's.
Both funds hold Morningstar's highest rating for risk-adjusted performance (five stars). At the end of the second quarter, nearly 20 percent of the social funds could boast five stars, compared with just 10 percent of all mutual funds.
Counting the four-star category, too, more than 40 percent of the social funds shone.
Calvert, however, has been underperforming; its equity funds rate two or three stars. It's also a load fund, charging 4.75 percent upfront.
Amy Domini, president of the Domini Fund, says that social funds are now being added to 401(k) plans, thanks to a favorable opinion issued by the Department of Labor last year.
Does the good record of so many socially responsible funds mean that "green" companies also make better investments? Maybe, but not necessarily.
After screening out firearms, alcohol, big industrial companies (which are hard on the environment) and nuclear power, the social funds wound up with market-beating growth stocks: technology, telecommunications and consumer companies, Hale says.
Eventually, the depressed stocks -- generally known as value stocks -- will come back into style. To prove their case, social investing funds will have to excel then, too.
At the very least, social funds have proved themselves equal to other funds. You can do just as well investing there as anywhere else.