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Advocates look to credit card companies to track suspect gun sales


A growing number of politicians and advocates for tighter gun regulations aren't just asking for change from the government. They want credit card companies to play a part, too. Samantha Max of member station WNYC explains how.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: When you buy something with a credit card, the card company tracks it based on where you made the purchase. That's tagged with a merchant category code. There's one for grocery stores, another for airlines, but not for gun retailers.

ZELLNOR MYRIE: I think people would be shocked to find that out.

MAX: New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie and more than four dozen other state lawmakers have penned a letter to Mastercard and American Express. They're asking the New York-based credit card companies to support the creation of a new code for gun sellers. Now, the international standards body that sets these codes typically lumps them into a category called miscellaneous with magic stores, silk flower shops and bottled water dealers.

MYRIE: And I think the public would agree that it's important for us to keep track of these things.

MAX: Federal law already requires financial institutions to report suspicious activity. If credit cards had a separate code for purchases at gun stores, the same laws would let them flag questionable purchases there. Legislators say that could ultimately help law enforcement stop crimes like firearms trafficking or even prevent mass shootings, like the one earlier this year in Buffalo. Here's state assembly member Chantel Jackson.

CHANTEL JACKSON: What we want to do is prevent another Buffalo from happening. We all was sad. We all talked about, you know, the people that we lost. But the truth is, we have to start doing every single thing on every single front to make sure we are combating this.

LAWRENCE KEANE: 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.

MAX: Lawrence Keane is with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He worries the code would lead to credit card companies getting in the way of people's Second Amendment rights. Keane notes that buyers are supposed to go through a background check. A recent report found the FBI is so backlogged that not all checks are completed. Keane says a seller can also choose not to go through with a transaction if they feel uncomfortable.

KEANE: They're in a better position to make that judgment than some computer terminal at some bank or some credit card processor based on some computer code or algorithm.

MAX: Still, Igor Volsky with Guns Down America thinks it's at least worth a try.

IGOR VOLSKY: Different actors in our society have to step up and do what they can to save lives. That extends to the president, to members of Congress and to private companies.

MAX: There's a pending application to create a code, with a decision expected as early as this month. California's attorney general and its state teacher's retirement system have joined the calls. Dozens of federal Congress members have also sent letters to Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Last week, various officials and gun control advocates gathered in New York's city hall. They said three of its pension systems had decided to use their shareholder status to push the companies to take action. Attorney General Letitia James urged credit card companies to support their request.


LETITIA JAMES: If tracking these codes could stop just one mass shooting or derail one gun trafficker aiming to flood the streets with guns, it would be worth it.

MAX: Mastercard says it's looking into how a new code could be implemented if it's approved. American Express and Visa did not respond to requests for comment.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL FK'S "INTERFERENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.