On the surface, it seems like a reasonable extra safety net to help identify killers before they go on a mass shooting spree.
But an effort by four dozen state lawmakers to have Mastercard and American Express track gun store purchases will likely do little to reduce mass shootings, while placating anti-gun activists and riling up Second Amendment supporters.
The lawmakers are asking the two New York-based companies to begin tracking spending at stores that sell guns.
Right now, the credit card companies track spending at grocery stores, airlines and other types of retailers. But they don’t identify purchases at stores that sell guns and they don’t identify exact items purchased. So how does that help identify mass shooters?
Well, such a system could flag a mass shooter who spreads out his purchases at several stores over time so as not to draw attention to himself. But only if he uses a credit card instead of cash, uses the same credit card for all his purchases or if credit card companies share gun purchase information.
There are already laws and practices in place to help head off a mass shooter.
For instance, since 2013, federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks for such purchases.
Also, if someone enters a store seeking to buy an AR-15, the weapon of choice for many mass shooters, the store operator has the right and an obligation to deny the sale, especially if they become suspicious.
These safety measures don’t always work because not all mass shooters have criminal records and not all reveal their intentions to gun dealers or on social media in advance.
But how would having credit card companies flag general purchases at gun stores be any more effective at identifying potential shooters than the safeguards we already have in place?
One fundamental problem with this effort is that it singles out individuals making legal purchases.
Targeting people who shop at gun stores could lead to innocent individuals and store operators being singled out for special scrutiny by the credit card companies or the government, even if the purchases were not used in a crime.
Another consideration: To support the credit card companies’ efforts to flag suspicious purchases, government would have to set up legal requirements for credit card companies to notify authorities – maybe a purchase amount or multiple purchases. Is the state going to monitor all credit card purchases at gun stores for potential shooters in real time? Are state lawmakers ready to do that?
There are other ways to reduce mass shootings, such as red-flag laws, raising the age of purchase, limiting the sale of certain weapons and restricting how much ammunition can be sold. The federal government also could impose tighter restrictions on retailers to help identify multiple purchases by the same individual at different stores.
Before putting the responsibility for mass shootings on credit card companies to score political points, the government should improve on other ways to reduce gun violence.
This isn’t the way.