The Florida Legislature has started hearings on Senate Bill 214, a measure that would ban flagging unusual gun purchases made with credit cards.
But before I tell you why you should care about that bill, let me tell you about this photograph of me on vacation. It’s become a running joke because they say I look like I’m for hire. In the photo, I’m smiling, sweaty and shirtless, next to an ATM in Mexico. The truth is I was there waiting for the bank to reactivate my card. I hadn’t informed my financial institution of my travel plans, and so my transactions abroad were flagged and my card frozen.
I’m sure some of you must have experienced something similar — you to a new bar or you make an unusual purchase, and the next thing you know you’re chatting with your bank’s fraud department.
It’s annoying, but the Patriot Act doesn’t care.
Financial institutions are required by law to notice if customers do something out of the norm, and sometimes to report those aberrations to the authorities. The government’s goal is to spot terrorist activity and money laundering. Banks get a side benefit by detecting fraud quickly and minimizing losses.
While the Patriot Act was testing the boundaries of national security with that monitoring requirement back in 2001, the next development came from the Internal Revenue Service. In 2004, the IRS mandated that credit card transactions be tagged with merchant category codes, which could be used to flag whether a given transaction needed to be reported to the government as potentially taxable income. Last fall, after years of pressure from Democrats and gun control advocates, the International Organization for Standardization created a merchant code specifically for gun retailers.
Predictably, Republicans didn’t like this new code. Conservative lawmakers in at least four states introduced legislation to ban use of the code.
That Florida would join this crowd is particularly disappointing. Had a gun merchant code existed in 2016, credit card companies could have flagged Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, who used his cards to purchase nearly $20,000 worth of weaponry in less than two weeks before the shooting. Now, with a code to identify retail gun sales, perhaps the next would-be mass shooter will be flagged.
The National Rifle Association objected preemptively, saying the decision was “nothing more than a capitulation to anti-gun politicians and activists bent on eroding the rights of law-abiding Americans one transaction at a time.” It’s important to remember that merchant codes show the type of business at which a purchase was made, not what was purchased. So rhetoric about merchant codes becoming a national gun registry is hyperbolic.
In a 2018 analysis of mass shootings, the New York Times reported that “there have been 13 shootings that killed 10 or more people in the last decade, and in at least eight of them, the killers financed their attacks using credit cards. Some used credit to acquire firearms they could not otherwise have afforded. Those eight shootings killed 217 people.”
The question is how did an industry as large and as profitable and as omnipresent as gun retail manage not to receive a code until now? Feels purposeful.
If gun and ammo purchases are a normal part of your life, the bank is already aware of that and the “know your customer” standard doesn’t kick in. But when Stephen Paddock used credit cards to buy close to $100,000 worth of firearms and weaponry before he killed 60 people in Las Vegas in 2017, that was out of character. If there had been a merchant code for gun retailers then, financial companies could have seen just how worrying that spending spree was.
Those numbers need to be part of the discussion about SB 214, because those numbers are the real reason we’re even having this conversation.
LZ Granderson is a journalist and former actor, writing for the Los Angeles Times.