Wells Fargo CEO talks role that banks should, and shouldn't, play in gun issue

Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan said Tuesday the bank is in talks with gunmakers who are its clients, the latest financial institution to disclose steps it's taking in the wake of last month's deadly shooting at a Florida high school.

Wells Fargo, the No. 3 U.S bank by assets, was the gun industry's top financier, Bloomberg News reported this month.

Sloan did not outline any actions Wells Fargo might take, and he declined to name the gunmakers citing client confidentiality. But he said the bank is providing those clients with feedback it is hearing from Wells employees, investors and others.

"We think that's the value that we can provide to them," Sloan said in an Observer interview during a trip to Charlotte, where San Francisco-based Wells maintains its largest employee hub.

"Some of our team members are concerned about who can buy semiautomatic weapons in this country, and they're concerned about various laws and the like," he said. "What we find is absolutely consistent whether you are a gunowner or not: You want your children to be safe, they should be safe when they go to school, they should be safe when they're walking down the street. That's consistent. How we go about that is more complicated."

The bank helped two of the biggest U.S. firearm and ammunition firms attain $431.1 million in loans and bonds since December 2012, a time when gun control issues re-ignited following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Bloomberg reported. Wells has also provided a credit line to the National Rifle Association, the pro-Second Amendment rights group, according to Bloomberg.

This past weekend, students led more than 800 events worldwide calling for action to end mass shootings. Organizers in Charlotte said they were were horrified by the February shooting, in which 17 students and faculty were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla.

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New York-based Citigroup, the fourth-largest U.S. bank by assets, announced last week a new policy for its retail clients, including a requirement that they not sell firearms to someone who hasn’t passed a background check. In addition, they must not sell firearms to individuals under 21 or sell bump stocks or high-capacity magazines.

The policy applies to clients of all sizes, as well as credit card partners. "It doesn't impact the ability of consumers to use their Citi cards at merchants of their choice," the bank said.

Charlotte-based Bank of America, the No. 2 U.S. bank, said in February that it’s reaching out to clients that manufacture assault weapons for non-military use "to understand what they can contribute to this shared responsibility."

Sloan said Wells Fargo is continuing to encourage elected officials to look at the issue not from a partisan perspective, "but in a way that they can really solve the problem."

Banks' role in the issue should involve encouraging customers to follow the law, Sloan said, "whatever the law might be."

But he pushed back on the idea of banks cutting ties to gunmakers or preventing customers from purchasing guns as the solution. Sloan noted that Wells can't tell what a person is buying anyway at the time they are using a credit or debit card at a retailer.

"I don't know if Americans, regardless of which side of the issue you might be on, on whether or not folks should own guns or which type they should purchase, do they really want their bank to be making that decision?" he said. "I don't know if banks or credit card companies or any other financial institution should be the arbiter of what an American can buy."

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Sloan, 57, took the helm in October 2016 after John Stumpf retired amid an escalating scandal over sales practices in the company's community banking division. Since then, he has been working to fix those problems while putting out new fires related to auto insurance, mortgage practices and other matters.

In an unprecedented move in February, the Federal Reserve slapped the bank with an enforcement action that restricts Wells Fargo’s future growth as the regulator cracks down on the bank's risk management. The bank at the same time also announced a shake-up to its board of directors.

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Sloan is a Wells Fargo veteran who had previously served as president after largely coming up through the side of the bank that serves business customers. He lives in the Los Angeles area but has an office in San Francisco. His parents live in Davidson.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker
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