Catholic college says involvement with assault weapons manufacturer keeps the community safe

St. Thomas University is rejecting a grassroots petition urging Anita Britt to step down from Smith & Wesson's parent company.

Smith & Wesson booth at trade show
Smith & Wesson booth at trade show. CREDIT: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, hundreds of people have signed petitions urging business leaders to step down from the board of American Outdoor Brands, whose Smith & Wesson AR-15 was used in the mass killing. But the employer of one of those board members is defending her dual role as a university administrator and an arms manufacturing director, saying it is important for community safety.

Anita Britt, the chief financial and administrative officer at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida, joined the board of directors for American Outdoor Brands earlier this year — just days before the Parkland shooting occurred 28 miles north of the Catholic college. Corporate filings indicate that the company pays board members more than $100,000 annually in cash and stock for their service.

Praveen Kathpal, an Alexandria, Virginia dad who was eager to do something to stop gun violence after seeing the tragedy in Parkland and last year’s mass shooting in his own community, launched an online petition in late February urging Britt to step down from the gun company’s board. Kathpal also started a similar petition urging another board member, hardware company CEO Greg Gluchowski, to do the same.

Noting that Britt and Gluchowski bring both credibility and experience to their roles, Kathpal said he decided to focus his attention on mobilizing members of their communities to push them to leave the company.

“I realized that some of the most recent additions came from a very mainstream business background,” Kathpal told ThinkProgress in reference to American Outdoor Brands’ board. “If people from the mainstream business community don’t want this association, realize there’s a reputational risk, the pool they’re drawing from would be greatly diminished. I see this as part of the trends of corporate divestment and businesses ending their partnerships with the NRA.”

Hundreds of people signed each petition. Parkland shooting survivors joined the cause.

Neither Britt nor Gluchowski responded to inquires about their involvement with American Outdoor Brands. Officials from St. Thomas University also did not immediately respond to a request from ThinkProgress.

But on Friday, St. Thomas University President Monsignor Franklyn M.Casale sent a message to the faculty defending Britt’s dual role.

“Ms. Britt is also a member of the Board of Directors of American Outdoor Brands Company, a provider of quality products for shooting, hunting, and rugged outdoor activities,” Casale wrote. “At St. Thomas University, we believe that our community and our world can be a better place. Ms. Britt’s position with American Outdoor Brands provides her the opportunity to participate in helping the company achieve its objectives of making our communities safer and that her role with the company does not conflict with her responsibilities here at St. Thomas. Ms. Britt’s contributions to our organization are noteworthy, and we look forward to her continued participation in our leadership.”

Casale also noted that the campus policy is “in line with that of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in calling for reasonable approaches to gun violence.”

Darrell Arnold, a professor of philosophy at St. Thomas University, told ThinkProgress that he and several of his colleagues on the faculty found this statement “very disappointing” — and out of line with the school’s Catholic social justice teachings.

“I understand why American Outdoor Brands would want her on their board — she’s CFO of a Christian college, they want guns identified with American values and Christian values,” Arnold said. “I don’t see that it’s in the values of our board, what our benefit is.” He noted that it could also be a poor business decision: As the school tries to recruit students from Broward and Miami-Dade counties, including Catholic kids concerned about social justice, “I don’t see that having a top administrator at our university on a gun company, as a merchant of death, is in any way beneficial to our recruitment activities.”

Diego Sanchez, a student at St. Thomas University’s law school and a former president of the school’s undergraduate student body, echoed these concerns in a phone interview.

“It’s basically implying that somehow being on the board is helping make our community safer. What’s she’s doing is profiting out of the making of these types of weapons,” Sanchez said. He added that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ teaching has been urging common sense steps to reduce of gun violence, which are not in keeping with the bottom line for gun companies.

“AR-15 -style weapons have no place in our civil society and part of the school’s statement that she’s there and in her position she’s making our community safer is really appalling,” Sanchez said. “I couldn’t believe it when I read it.”