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NYC officials demand credit card giants start tracing gun purchases

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York City Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell during a news conference to announce a lawsuit against "ghost gun" distributors, on June 29, 2022, in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/TNS)

Mayor Eric Adams and Comptroller Brad Lander are seeking to use the New York City government’s retirement investments as leverage to pressure the credit card industry into launching a system for tracing gun purchases, arguing that such a mechanism could help prevent future mass shootings.

Under current rules, MasterCard, VISA, Amex and other credit card networks must categorize purchases at everything from grocery stores to bicycle shops under specific merchant category codes. But there are no such codes for gun and ammunition retailers — meaning buys in those categories are only listed as “miscellaneous” in credit card reports.

During a Tuesday afternoon press conference at City Hall, Adams, Lander and a cadre of other local officials said establishing a weapon code would enable financial institutions to detect and report suspicious gun purchases to law enforcement, such as an unusually large number of firearms bought over a short time span.

Notably, some U.S. mass shooters made extraordinarily sizable purchases, including the perpetrator of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Florida, who used a MasterCard to buy $26,000 worth of firearms and ammunition in the days before the attack.

But Lander said MasterCard, VISA and Amex have so far opposed a gun merchant code proposal pending before the International Organization on Standardization, the entity charged with regulating the code system.

“Unfortunately, MasterCard, American Express and VISA have failed to support this simple, practical, life-saving tool,” Lander said. “The time has come for them to do so.”

In order to ramp up pressure, Lander said the city’s three public retirement pension funds — which hold more than $800 million invested with MasterCard, VISA and Amex — have issued formal shareholder proposals with the credit card giants demanding that they back the creation of a new code for weapon buys.

“Why would you not want to do this?” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a trustee of the city’s pension funds. “It’s preventative, and it holds people accountable. What can you tell us as to why you wouldn’t do this, when you do it everywhere else, except for the thing that causes death and carnage?”

Despite the tough talk, Lander stopped short of pledging to divest the city’s pension cash from the credit card behemoths if they vote against the creation of a new firearm merchant code when the International Organization on Standardization convenes for a meeting this fall.

“I’m very hopeful that these three companies will understand where their investors are and where the American people are,” the comptroller said.

Representatives for Amex and VISA did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

Seth Eisen, a spokesman for MasterCard, said the company is still mulling over the proposal before the International Organization on Standardization. But he also noted that MasterCard values the “privacy” of its customers.

“As we do with other MCC proposals and related topics, we are reviewing how it could be implemented and managed by the banks that connect merchants to our network,” Eisen wrote in an email. “This will help us continue to deliver a payments system that supports all legal purchases while protecting the privacy and decisions of individual cardholders.”


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