A new credit card code is a first step toward preventing gun violence, advocates say

A gun store in Yuma, Ariz. Such retailers will soon have their own “merchant code” to classify credit card purchases made there.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images


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Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

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A gun store in Yuma, Ariz. Such retailers will soon have their own “merchant code” to classify credit card purchases made there.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Gun control advocates are hailing a new change in the credit card industry that they say could help stop gun violence.

This week, credit card companies Visa, MasterCard and American Express all said they would adopt a new code to classify sales at gun stores, a move that advocates say would make it easier to flag suspicious gun sales. .

John Feinblatt, President of Everytown, said, “Today’s announcement is an important first step toward giving banks and credit card companies the tools they need to recognize dangerous firearms buying trends — such as a domestic extremist building an arsenal — and law enforcement.” reports to.” for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, in a statement last week.

All purchases made with credit cards are classified with a “merchant code”—a special code assigned to a variety of businesses such as utility companies, grocery stores, gas stations, airlines, hotels. And, over the years, gun shops have been classified as miscellaneous retail or sporting goods stores.

Now, following a Democrat-backed effort led by the socially progressive bank Amalgamated Bank, gun shops will have a different code.

But experts say it’s not clear whether In fact the new policy will have an impact On gun violence, if any.

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

“As a nation, we monitor the sale of dynamite and other dangerous products that can cause death. This policy is in line with that thinking,” he said.

The new merchant code system is limited

2018 check new York Times Listed several examples of high-profile mass shooters who used credit cards to purchase weapons and ammunition, including the attackers at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Movie Theater in Aurora, Colo.

However, many people bought their weapons from retailers that cannot be classified under the new merchant code. For example, Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain — two chains where Aurora shooters bought their weapons — are general sporting goods stores that sell fishing gear, camping supplies and clothing along with firearms.

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

Federal data shows that criminals are also less likely to buy guns in stores. In a 2016 Justice Department survey of people held in federal and state prisons, only 7% of people who owned a gun when they committed a crime purchased that weapon under their own name from a licensed dealer. More often, the survey found, they had obtained the gun from a family member or friend, or purchased it in a black market deal.

“I don’t see how it works. I don’t know why it’s necessary. And the only reason it’s advanced is a political gun control agenda,” said Lawrence Keane with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade union change opposes.

Some have privacy and surveillance concerns

Federal law requires banks to report suspicious activities that may be related to certain financial crimes, such as money laundering or the financing of terrorism. Proponents of the new merchant code say it could work similarly.

“You can imagine, for example, if someone buys several guns each week, it raises some flags,” said Jacob Charles, a law professor at Pepperdine University who specializes in firearms law.

It is not clear whether financial institutions will act on such flags.

Additionally, credit card companies generally do not have access to which items were purchased in any given transaction, only the total amount of the sale.

In other words, imagine two customers at the same gun store: the first may purchase multiple guns and several boxes of ammunition for a total of $3,000, while the next customer may purchase a higher quality gun safe for the same price. The two transactions would effectively look identical to the credit card company.

Some experts have expressed concerns about privacy, which echo those taken by abortion rights advocates in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the ruling. Roe vs. Wade, With abortion restrictions in place in more than a dozen states, some worry that credit card history could become evidence in abortion-related lawsuits.

Sobita Parthasarathy, director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan, said the combination of law enforcement with extensive surveillance over procurement history is “terrible and potentially dystopian.”

Parthasarathy also suggested that this measure may have the unintended consequence of prompting people to use cash or multiple credit cards, making gun purchases more difficult to track.

Advocates say it’s just a step

Advocates say they see the changes to the merchant code as a major step in increasing pressure on the gun industry.

“What we want to do is prevent another buffalo from happening,” said Chantal Jackson, a member of the Democratic New York state legislature who lobbied credit card companies to adopt the code. “The truth is that we have to start doing every single thing on every front to make sure we’re combating this.”

Several payment systems, including Apple Pay and PayPal, have already decided to ban the sale of guns on their platforms. Advocates say credit card companies could follow suit.

Credit card companies have historically shown little appetite to take such measures. (“We do not believe that Visa should be in a position to ban the sale of legitimate goods or services,” said a Visa spokesperson. Times in 2018. “Asking Visa or other payment networks what legal goods can be purchased sets a dangerous precedent.”

Yet, in the wake of what they called a victory with the Merchant Code, advocates have reiterated their call.

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

Additional reporting by Samantha Max of WNYC.

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