With a new year looming, Ohio lawmakers are trying to spur firearm legislation forward. State senators are holding hearings on a measure banning gun store specific merchant codes, despite credit card companies halting the idea the months ago. Meanwhile in the House, lawmakers want to bring a controversial proposal to the floor restricting local agencies’ interaction with federal authorities.
Before lawmakers took a break for Thanksgiving, Sen. Terry Johnson’s, R-McDermott, Second Amendment Financial Privacy Act, held a hearing for proponents. The measure prohibits credit card companies from employing a unique merchant code for gun stores.
Right now, gun sellers are typically categorized as a sporting goods or general merchandise retailer. With a firearm specific code, gun control advocates argued, credit card companies could potentially identify dangerous purchasing patterns. As a model, they point to federal law requiring financial institutions to flag potential money laundering.
Supporters in Congress argue the codes could provide warnings about potential straw purchases, transactions at multiple locations or excessive debt for gun purchases. Still, the merchant code is a blunt instrument — identifying how much was spent, but not what was bought.
Christopher Lee, from firearm manufacturers’ trade group the National Shooting Sports Foundation, seized on that point.
“These codes would apply whether a person’s buying ammunition, buying a firearm, buying a gun safe, buying boots, or a bag — anything that you would purchase from a firearm retail shop would be coded as a firearm retail shop purchase,” Lee told the committee.
Notably, a firearm merchant code also wouldn’t be much help for cash purchases or for gun show and private sales.
As for flagging transactions based on the amount, John Weber from the National Rifle Association, argued there could be legitimate reasons for bulk purchases.
“What about a Boy Scout troop leader who’s buying a bunch of ammunition for the start of camp? The coach of a high school trap team,” he offered. “There’s a lot of examples of people that can buy a lot of this gear for events.”
What’s the fuss?
Despite those shortcomings, Lee went on to argue the merchant code could provide the basis for a “gun owner watchlist” that could circumvent prohibitions on a federal registry.
“This attempt to code firearm retail purchases of firearm retail shops is an assault on the privacy and Second Amendment rights of people of Ohio,” Lee said.
Although the country’s major payment processors initially voiced support for a new merchant code, they have since ‘paused’ that effort. Lee insisted lawmakers should press forward, though, “to make sure that this pause remains in place permanently.”
Rob Sexton from the Buckeye Firearms Association reiterated those points. He called the merchant code a “backdoor attempt” for federal authorities to gain access to gun ownership information by compelling financial institutions hand it over.
“The bottom line,” Sexton said, “is we want to slam the door on this type of record keeping scheme before it really gets off to a running start in this country.”
Still, without financial institutions moving forward on the new merchant code, Johnson’s proposal offers a solution to a problem that likely doesn’t exist. It’s not the only one.
He’s also co-sponsoring a measure with Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, that would bar local governments from requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance. Johnson and Gavarone have not identified any Ohio municipalities even contemplating the idea. Instead, they point to the state of New Jersey and the city of San Jose, California.
Both measures are the subject of ongoing litigation. In California, a judge upheld the city’s ordinance and a gun rights group is appealing. In New Jersey, a federal district judge blocked the provisions while a legal challenge played out. Although the circuit court lifted that injunction, the judges sounded skeptical during a hearing last month.
The Ohio bill has already passed the Senate and has had a handful of hearings in the House Insurance Committee. That panel has yet to advance the bill for a vote, though, and hasn’t held a hearing at all since Nov. 1.
Additionally, the Ohio House seems ready to advance the so-called “Second Amendment Preservation Act.” The bill would excise all reference to federal statutes in Ohio laws. Supporters contend this is meant to ensure local officers can’t be compelled to enforce federal law. But the measure’s many detractors — including police chiefs and prosecutors — contend the bill would severely limit local agencies’ ability to investigate crimes. What’s more, the Missouri bill that served as its model was struck down in federal court.
Still, House Speaker Jason Stephens said he anticipates the chamber will pass the bill before the end of the year. The House is slated to have at least three more floor sessions by then.
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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