Q&A: What’s the impact of Visa categorizing gun sales?

(NewsNation) — Visa Inc. on Saturday announced it will separately categorize sales at gun shops — a move gun control advocates say could help flag suspicious sales ahead of a mass shooting.

Visa said it would adopt the International Organization for Standardization’s new merchant code for gun sales. Until Friday, gun store sales were considered “general merchandise.”

Mastercard and American Express also have plans to take similar action.

NewsNation spoke with Syracuse University Political Science Professor Grant Reeher about lingering questions surrounding the practice.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NewsNation: Can you summarize the argument on both sides of this conversation?

Reeher: The argument in favor of it is that somehow potentially this data could be used to interdict a potential mass shooting, to flag the purchasing activity of someone that may be likely to engage in that. The example that gets used is the shooter at the nightclub in Florida several years back apparently purchased $26,000 worth of firearms and ammunition prior to that mass shooting. That’s a big number.

But then it invites the question: what would be the threshold? And then what would you want the credit card companies to do with that information? Are they going to be contacting law enforcement and say, “this person just bought $3,000 worth of stuff from a gun shop? $5,000? $10,000?”

If it’s anything that needs a background check, it’ll get a background check because these are licensed dealers. These aren’t individual sales. Do we want these folks reporting this activity to the government when it gets over a certain threshold? So the two big questions are: what is the threshold? And what do you do with that information?

No one ever says there’s any intent to report people for buying $20,000 worth of groceries or $50,000 worth of airline tickets. So what is the point of doing this? On the con side, the only foreseeable point would be to use that data to report it and to share it with other parties and if that’s the case, then it invites the question of do we really want to be reporting what are lawful purchases to law enforcement? And is that in and of itself probable cause?

NN: Does there already exist among licensed firearm dealers some kind of system to flag large purchases? Why or why not?

Reeher: I’m not aware of anything that is driven purely by volume. But there are two problems here. I think that the advocates of what is going on here need to have an answer for…the threshold. The problem here is if we’re going to be looking just at dollar numbers, we have to bear in mind that there are for example, high-end, custom hunting rifles that you would never use for anything other than say, going on an elk hunt in Montana, that cost $15,000. They exist and people with the means and the desire to do this will buy them.

That’s different than someone buying 30 Glocks, which you can get for $500 each. So looking just at the dollar (amount) isn’t necessarily going to tell you all that much about that person. That’s one problem.

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The second thing is, if the argument is, ‘we want to flag this because it’s $26,000,’ well, then you need to say what you’re going to do with the data. Are you going to take this data and go to the FBI? It almost doesn’t make sense to collect the data unless you’re intending to use it for something.

…Should we be comfortable with a credit card company reporting to the police $1,000 worth of purchases of this nature? A lot of people will say yes, of course, I’m comfortable with that. There will be a lot of gun control advocates that will say we want them all reported. But then we’re back to a gun registration system, in which the presumption of danger is going to be put on every single legal firearm purchase, and that has usually been found to be a bridge too far for the American public.

NN: Could this change fuel the sale of “ghost guns” or otherwise change gun-buying behavior?

Reeher: I don’t see that in this case, because, if I understand this correctly, the way around this in this instance, would be simply to buy the firearm from a shop with cash or check because that’s not being monitored here by the credit card companies.

The reason why so many people do use credit cards to purchase guns is, as I said earlier in our conversation, they can be very expensive depending on what you buy.

NN: Do police have the manpower to dedicate time investigating something like this?

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Reeher: Again, if the threshold is low and the credit card companies are reporting this, they’re just going to be inundating law enforcement with all this information… People are buying guns right now at a very high rate and that’s because of the pandemic, it’s because of concerns about what’s going on in the political process, whether some of these guns in the future might not be able to be bought. So we’re kind of in the middle of one of these buying panics right now. So there’s going to be information just being piled on to law enforcement and they don’t have the person power to sort through it all.