AG Platkin Leads Multistate Condemnation of Major Credit Card Companies’ About-Face on Pledge to Implement New Merchant Code to Help Flag Potential Mass Shooters and Gun Traffickers

For Immediate Release: March 16, 2023

Office of the Attorney General
– Matthew J. Platkin, Attorney General

For Further Information:

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Letter

TRENTON – Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin today led a coalition of Attorneys General from across the nation in condemning four of the world’s largest credit card companies —Visa, American Express, Mastercard, and Discover — for walking back their commitment to implement a new merchant code for gun sales that would help prevent mass shootings and curb gun violence.

In September, three of the credit card giants —Visa, American Express, and MasterCard —publicly announced plans to add a new merchant code for gun retailers to the hundreds already used to categorize merchant sales. The creation of the new code had been approved earlier that month by the Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization to allow financial institutions to better detect and report suspicious activities related to the purchase of firearms and ammunition at standalone gun retail stores. In February 2023, Discover announced that it too would begin using the new code.

But in an abrupt about-face last week, all four companies announced they were putting the brakes on implementing the code, citing legislative bills in several states seeking to bar or limit the use of the voluntary code as a supposed incursion on Second Amendment rights.

Today, Attorney General Platkin joined District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings, and Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell in leading a multistate coalition of 14 Attorneys General denouncing that decision as unjustifiable.

In a letter sent to the chief executives of Visa, American Express, Mastercard, and Discover today, the Attorneys General accused the companies of capitulating to political pressure cloaked in specious legal arguments and amorphous veiled threats from certain state Attorneys General.

“We see no valid reason why these companies, who process millions of transactions in firearms, ammunitions, gun kits, and more, would renege on their pledge to take simple, commonsense steps to help flag potential gun traffickers and mass shooters,” said Attorney General Platkin. “Applying a merchant code is hardly an invitation to violate the Second Amendment, but failing to apply it is an invitation to criminals to purchase firearm products with impunity and commit violent acts in our communities.  We implore Mastercard, Visa, Discover, and American Express to stand up and make good on their pledge to help protect against gun violence. Their actions can help prevent innocent school children and others from dying needlessly at the hands of a gunman.”

In the letter, the Attorneys General remind the credit card companies that the newly created code for gun stores is hardly an extraordinary development. They’re already using them to categorize basic transactions for everyday items like flowers and groceries, and already have hundreds of retailer codes for everything from stamp shops and wig stores to car rental agencies and various government services.

The new code simply creates a unique merchant category for gun stores, which previously were categorized as “sporting goods stores” or “general merchandise.”

The new code, narrowly tailored so that it applies only to purchases made at independently-owned gun retail shops, will have no bearing on an individual’s ability to lawfully purchase firearms, the letter states. It will, however, help financial institutions and law enforcement agencies identify individuals engaging in unlawful transactions, including the purchase of prohibited firearms such as ghost guns or assault weapons; straw buyers engaged in trafficking; and high-risk purchasers trying to avoid detection in amassing an arsenal that could be used for mass shootings.

Enabling financial institutions to detect and flag threatening patterns and potential criminal activity for law enforcement is nothing new, as they’ve been doing it for decades, the letter points out.

For instance, federal law requires Suspicious Activity Reports when banks “detect a known or suspected violation of Federal law or a suspicious transaction related to a money laundering activity or a violation of the Bank Secrecy Act,” the letter states. And state and federal law enforcement agencies often request evidence relating to firearms or other investigations. But the ability of financial institutions or law enforcement to take steps against criminal gun purchases is hampered by the lack of a dedicated code for firearm and ammunition retailers, the letter asserts.

Last fall, Attorney General Platkin co-led a group of 11 Attorneys General in supporting Visa, American Express, and Mastercard’s publicly stated plans to adopt the new merchant code.

In a letter sent to company executives on September 20, 2022, the Attorneys General commended the credit card industry’s then-willingness to step up and do its part to protect communities and eradicate gun violence across the United States.

In today’s letter, the Attorneys General urged the companies to stay true to that commitment and not cave under political pressure and unfounded legal threats. To do so would set a precedent that invites further interference in lawful, protected business practices, they said.

“We hope and expect you will reconsider your decision and not abandon your public commitments.  Should you fail to do so, your complicity with ongoing needless gun tragedies will lead us to consider further actions,” the letter concludes.

Joining Attorneys General Platkin, Schwalb, Jennings and Campbell in signing the letter are the Attorneys General of California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

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