New credit card merchant code could help curb gun violence, say advocates: NPR


A gun store in Yuma, Arizona. These retailers will soon have their own “merchant code” to categorize credit card purchases made there.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

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Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

A gun store in Yuma, Arizona. These retailers will soon have their own “merchant code” to categorize credit card purchases made there.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Gun control advocates are cheering a new shift in the credit card industry that they say could help prevent gun violence.

This week, credit card companies Visa, Mastercard and American Express all said they would adopt a new code to categorize sales at gun stores, a move that supporters say will make it easier to report gun sales. suspicious weapons.

“Today’s announcement is a crucial first step in giving banks and credit card companies the tools they need to recognize dangerous gun-buying trends – like a domestic extremist who build up an arsenal – and report them to law enforcement,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown. for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, in a statement last week.

All purchases made with credit cards are filed with what is called a “merchant code” – a special code assigned to various types of businesses such as utility companies, grocery stores, gas stations, airlines, hotels. And, for years, gun stores have been categorized as miscellaneous retail stores or sporting goods stores.

Now, after a Democratic-backed effort led by the socially progressive Amalgamated Bank, gun stores will have a separate code.

But experts say it’s not clear what impact the new policy will actually have have, if any, on armed violence.

Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who studies the effects of gun policy, said the measure could reduce gun violence “at the margin”.

“As a nation, we keep track of sales of dynamite and other dangerous products that can cause death. This policy is consistent with that thinking,” he said.

The new merchant code system is limited

A survey conducted in 2018 by The New York Times listed several examples of high profile mass shooters who used credit cards to purchase weapons and ammunition, including those who carried out the Pulse nightclub bombings in Orlando, Florida, and a cinema in Aurora, Colorado.

However, several had purchased their guns from retailers that may not be classified under the new dealer code. For example, Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain — the two chains where Aurora’s shooter bought his guns — are general sporting goods stores that sell fishing gear, camping supplies, and clothing alongside sports gear. ‘fire arms.

And many firearms are not purchased at retail stores at all. A 2015 national firearms survey found that only about half of firearms are purchased from retailers. People often buy guns from family members or friends, at online private sales, or at gun shows.

Criminals are even less likely to buy guns from stores, according to federal data. In a 2016 Department of Justice survey of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, only 7% of those who had a firearm when committing their offense purchased the firearm under their name from an authorized dealer. More often than not, investigation revealed that they had obtained the gun from a family member or friend, or purchased it on a black market.

“I don’t see how it works. I don’t see why it’s necessary. And the only reason it’s put forward is for a political gun control agenda,” said Lawrence Keane of National Shooting Sports. Foundation, a firearms trade association that opposes change.

Some have privacy and surveillance issues

Banks are required by federal law to report suspicious activity that may be related to certain financial crimes, such as money laundering or terrorist financing. Proponents of the new merchant code say it could work the same way.

“You can imagine, for example, it raises flags if an individual buys multiple guns every week,” said Jacob Charles, a law professor at Pepperdine University who specializes in gun law.

It is unclear if or how financial institutions would act on such flags.

Also, credit card companies generally do not have access to the items purchased in a given transaction, only the total amount of the sale.

In other words, imagine two customers in the same gun store: the first could buy several guns and several ammo boxes for a total of $3,000, while the next customer could buy a gun safe. high quality for the same price. Both transactions would effectively appear identical to the credit card company.

Some experts have expressed privacy concerns, which echo those raised by abortion rights advocates following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. With abortion bans enacted in more than a dozen states, some fear credit card history could become evidence in abortion-related lawsuits.

The combination of law enforcement with extensive surveillance of purchase histories is “terrifying and potentially dystopian,” said Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the University of Michigan’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program.

Parthasarathy also suggested the measure could have the unintended consequence of tricking people into using cash or multiple credit cards, making gun purchases harder to track.

Supporters say it’s just a step

Advocates say they see the merchant code change as one step in a bigger push to increase pressure on the gun industry.

“What we want to do is prevent another Buffalo from happening,” said Chantel Jackson, a Democratic Assemblywoman from New York State, who has lobbied credit card companies. credit for adopting the code. “The truth is we have to start doing every thing on every front to make sure we fight this.”

Several payment systems, including Apple Pay and PayPal, have already chosen to ban the sale of weapons on their platforms. Credit card companies, proponents say, could follow suit.

Credit card companies have always been reluctant to take such action. “We do not believe that Visa should be able to impose restrictions on the sale of lawful goods or services,” a Visa spokesperson told the Time in 2018. “Asking Visa or other payment networks to arbitrate what legal goods can be purchased sets a dangerous precedent.”)

Yet, following what they called a victory with merchant codes, the defenders repeated their calls.

“Various actors in our society need to step in and do what they can to save lives. This extends to the President, members of Congress and private companies,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America.

Additional reporting by WNYC’s Samantha Max.


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