The effort to reduce mass shootings got a win over the weekend, as American Express, Mastercard, and Visa all said they would adopt a new code to categorize sales at gun shops. That in turn could help flag suspicious purchases that could be the prelude to a mass shooting—for instance, the shooter responsible for the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016 spent $26,000 on guns and ammunition just a week earlier.
The move by the credit card processing companies followed the announcement of the new code by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which Sen. Elizabeth Warren called “an important step towards improving coordination with law enforcement and preventing gun violence.”
Such codes are used to break out purchases at many types of business, including coffee shops, movie theaters, and salons. Gun lobbyists think it’s unfairly targeting guns to apply the same type of code to gun stores, but, as New York City Mayor Eric Adams has said, “When you buy an airline ticket or pay for your groceries, your credit card company has a special code for those retailers. It’s just common sense that we have the same policies in place for gun and ammunition stores.”
The adoption of the code by credit card processing companies is great news, and comes after advocacy by Amalgamated Bank, lawmakers like Warren, and some large public pension funds, as well as gun safety advocates. But it’s just the beginning. Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, who reported on the role of credit cards in enabling mass shootings and helped develop the plan for the gun shop code, lays out the next steps:
Card networks like Mastercard and Visa need to not only adopt the code, but also enforce its use by merchants and payment processors.
Merchants must start using the code, and not obfuscate transactions by using other classifications.
Big retailers like Walmart and sporting goods stores—which themselves use different merchant codes—need to use the code at registers they use to ring up firearms.
Most crucially, the payments industry needs to develop and refine software algorithms for identifying suspicious activity based on the merchant codes. (Amalgamated has begun work on this.) Banks could then either allow those transactions, or block them and file suspicious activity reports with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which would ideally also create a system to quickly forward that information to local law enforcement and the F.B.I.
As that list shows, there’s still work to be done. But this is an important step, and testimony to the gains that are possible when people think creatively and don’t give up.
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