How banks could control gun sales if Washington won’t

For the past year, chief executives have often talked about the new sense of moral responsibility that corporations have to help their communities and confront social challenges even when Washington won't.

In the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members — and at a time when Washington shows little interest in limiting the sales of assault weapons — there's a real opportunity for the business community to fill the void and prove that all that talk about moral responsibility isn't hollow.

Here's an idea.

What if the finance industry — credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard and American Express; credit card processors like First Data; and banks like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo — were to effectively set new rules for the sales of guns in America?

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Collectively, they have more leverage over the gun industry than any lawmaker. And it wouldn't be hard for them to take a stand.

PayPal, Square, Stripe and Apple Pay announced years ago that they would not allow their services to be used for the sale of firearms.

"We do not believe permitting the sale of firearms on our platform is consistent with our values or in the best interests of our customers," a spokesman for Square told me.

The big financial firms don't even have to go that far.

For example, Visa, which published a 71-page paper in 2016 espousing its "corporate responsibility," could easily change its terms of service to say that it won't do business with retailers that sell assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, which make semiautomatic rifles fire faster. (Even the National Rifle Association has said it would support tighter restrictions on bump stocks.)

If Mastercard were to do the same, assault weapons would be eliminated from virtually every firearms store in America because otherwise the sellers would be cut off from the credit card system.

There is precedent for credit card issuers to ban the purchase of completely legal products. Just this month, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America banned the use of their cards to buy Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

To be clear: Those three banks won't let you use your credit card to buy Bitcoin, but they will happily let you use it to buy an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle — the same kind of gun used in mass shootings in Parkland; Newtown, Conn.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Las Vegas; and Sutherland Springs, Tex.

Visa, oddly enough, is the card of choice of the N.R.A.: There is actually an N.R.A.-branded Visa card issued by First Bankcard, a division of First National Bank of Omaha. And Mastercard proudly announced last year that it was the branded card for Cabela's, an outdoor gear megastore with a seemingly limitless assault-weapon catalog.

Visa spokesmen did not reply to several emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Mastercard sent a boilerplate statement that expressed "disgust with recent events, including last week in Florida."

Guns on display in a gun shop
Getty Images
Guns on display in a gun shop

"Our payments network is governed by standards that have been established over time," the statement said. "Chief among these is that we do not and will not permit merchants to engage in unlawful activity on our network." He said the company would continue to talk to customers and lawmakers about its policies.

If Visa and Mastercard are unwilling to act on this issue, the credit card processors and banks that issue credit cards could try. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, which issues credit cards and owns a payment processor, has talked about how he and his bank have "a moral obligation but also a deeply vested interest" in helping "solve pressing societal challenges." This is your chance, Mr. Dimon.

And here's a variation on the same theme: What if the payment processing industry's biggest customers — companies like McDonald's, Starbucks, Apple, Amazon, AT&T, CVS and others that regularly talk about "social responsibility" — collectively pressured the industry to do it? There's a chance that some of the payment processors would stop handling gun sales. Perhaps their voices would help push one of the banks to step out and lead?

Is all of this a pipe dream? Maybe, but I spent the last 72 hours calling and emailing a handful of chief executives to discuss these ideas. None wanted to speak on the record, because it's a hot-button topic. But all applauded the idea and some said they had already been thinking about it. A few, I discovered later, called their peers to begin a conversation.

At least two executives said a reason that they haven't been more outspoken yet is that they fear reprisals from the N.R.A. and other gun supporters — not just in the form of boycotts that could affect their bottom line, but also actions that could imperil the safety of their employees.

Obviously there would be opposition. When Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, was asked at a conference about his former company's decision to not do business with firearms merchants, he made his displeasure clear. "No, I wouldn't be doing that if I was still running it," said Mr. Thiel, who left the company years ago and is a supporter of President Trump.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to an approach like this are companies like Walmart, which has huge sway over the financial industry. While Walmart stopped selling assault rifles in 2015, it might look askance at any policy by a bank issuer or credit card company to limit the kinds of products it sells.

Critics of using the finance industry to influence gun sales might argue that such a move would be discriminatory against gun retailers. But gun sellers are not a protected class, like age, race, gender, religion or even political affiliation. This would be a strictly commercial decision.

A woman tries out a rifle at a National Shooting Sports Foundation's Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas.
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A woman tries out a rifle at a National Shooting Sports Foundation's Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas.

Another critique is that it is impossible to prevent every shooting, no matter how guns are restricted. And the banks' actions would affect millions of their own law-abiding customers, effectively dictating what they can and cannot buy.

The most troubling aspect of having the finance industry try to restrict gun sales is that it would push the most dangerous guns into an untraceable world where sales would depend on cash. That's true. All things considered, though, it would make it considerably harder to even find such guns.

There are other sectors of the finance industry that could step up. For example, Lloyd's of London is the favored insurance company for gun shows. It could pull out.

None of this is a panacea. But it's a start. It takes leadership and courage — exactly what these executives say they have. If they don't want to back up their words with actions, the next time there's a school shooting that prompts a conversation about gun companies, it should also include the financial complex that supports them.

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