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A NEW CREDIT CARD CODE IS A FIRST STEP TOWARD PREVENTING GUN VIOLENCE, ADVOCATES SAY

by Sep 21, 2022Featured

Gun control advocates are
cheering a new change 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 shops,
a move that advocates say will
make it easier to flag suspicious
gun sales.

“Today’s announcement is
a critical first step towards
giving banks and credit card
companies the tools they need
to recognize dangerous firearm
purchasing trends – like a
domestic extremist building
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 categorized
with what’s called a “merchant
code” – a special code assigned
to various types of businesses
like utility companies, grocery
stores, gas stations, airlines,
hotels. And, for years, gun

shops have been categorized as
miscellaneous retail or sporting
goods stores. Now, after a
Democrat-supported effort led
by the socially progressive bank
Amalgamated Bank, gun stores
will have a separate code.

But experts say it’s unclear
what impact the new policy
will actually have, if any, on gun
violence.

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

“As a nation, we keep track of
sales 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.

A 2018 investigation 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 attacks at
the Pulse nightclub in Orlando,
Fla., and a movie theater in
Aurora, Colo.

However, several
had purchased their weapons
at retailers that may not be
categorized under the new
merchant code. For instance,
Bass Pro Shops and Gander
Mountain – the two chains
where the Aurora shooter
purchased his weapons – are
general sporting goods stores

that sell fishing gear, camping
supplies and clothing alongside
firearms.

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

riminals are even less likely to buy
guns in stores, federal data shows.
In a 2016 Department of Justice
survey of people incarcerated
in federal and state prisons, only
7% of those who had a gun while
committing their offense had
purchased that weapon under
their name from a licensed dealer.

More often, the survey found, they
had gotten 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 see
why it’s necessary. And the only
reason it’s being advanced is for a
political gun control agenda,” said
Lawrence Keane with the National
Shooting Sports Foundation, a
firearms trade association that
opposes the change.

Some have privacy and surveillance concerns
Banks are required by federal
law to report suspicious activity
that could be related to certain
financial crimes, like money
laundering or funding terrorism.
Supporters of the new merchant
code say that it could work
similarly.

“You can imagine, for example, it

raising some flags if an individual
purchases multiple guns every
week,” said Jacob Charles, a law
professor at Pepperdine University
who specializes in firearms law.

It’s not clear whether or how
financial institutions would 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 shop:
The first could buy several guns
and multiple boxes of ammunition
for a total of $3,000, while the
next customer might purchase a
high-quality gun safe for the same
price. The two transactions would
appear effectively identical to the
credit card company.

Some experts have expressed
concerns about privacy, which
echo those raised by abortion
rights advocates in the wake of
the Supreme Court’s decision
to overturn Roe v. Wade. With
abortion bans enacted in more
than a dozen states, some have
worried that credit card histories
could become evidence in
abortion-related prosecutions.

The combination of law
enforcement with wide-ranging
surveillance over purchase
histories teeters on “terrifying and
potentially dystopian,” said Shobita
Parthasarathy, director of the
Science, Technology and Public
Policy program at the University of
Michigan.

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