A new Montana law that would bar credit card companies from using merchant codes to identify gun sales is awaiting a signature or veto from Gov. Greg Gianforte. 

Merchant category codes, or MCCs, are four-digit numbers that identify the types of goods or services a business supplies. The gun shop-specific codes were first issued by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization last year after reporting by the New York Times in 2018 found that some mass shooters used credit cards to purchase multiple weapons at once, and that there was no way to flag that activity. Prior to last year, gun shops were given general merchandise or sporting goods codes. The codes do not allow credit card companies to identify specific purchases, but do record that a purchase was made. 

Proponents of the codes say the technology gives law enforcement tools to prevent tragedies before they happen, and that the codes aren’t meaningfully different from existing regulations that require a business to report when someone buys multiple weapons within a certain period of time. But opponents say the codes could be used to create a national gun registry (code proponents deny that claim) and that they infringe on citizens’ Second Amendment rights. 

“It’s going to be a mess if we have these dueling mandates. But I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, considering how polarized this country is.”

Adam Skaggs

Since the codes were first introduced last September, they have received push-back from conservatives, including Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who in a letter to credit card companies called it “the first step towards backdoor gun control on law-abiding Americans.” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen also signed a letter calling on American Express, Mastercard, and Visa to stop using the codes

This year, Republicans nationwide began proposing legislation to prevent the use of the codes, including Senate Bill 359, which prohibits the tracking of firearms sales by financial institutions. The bill was introduced by Sen. Terry Vermeire, R-Anaconda, in February and was passed by the Legislature in April. Similar legislation has been introduced in state houses across the country. 

But even if Gianforte signs the bill, it’s unlikely to have much of an impact. In March, American Express, Mastercard and Visa announced they were putting a “pause” on their implementation of the new codes. Conservatives celebrated the decision, but it has not halted legislation to ban the codes. 

Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and vice president of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said it was disappointing the credit card companies succumbed to pressure from opponents of the codes. 

“This could be a really good tool for law enforcement,” he told Montana Free Press. 

While some states are moving to limit the codes, others are looking to enforce their use, including California, Skaggs said. If California and other states pass legislation requiring implementation of the codes, Skaggs said, it could create a “patchwork” of regulation across the country that could be sorted out only by Congress, though he admitted that outcome seems unlikely. 

“It’s going to be a mess if we have these dueling mandates,” he said. “But I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, considering how polarized this country is.” 


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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.