A chorus of prosecutors, gun legislation advocates, law enforcement officials, and corporate shareholders are calling on global credit card giants Visa and Mastercard to stop facilitating payments for “ghost guns,” or untraceable, easy-to-assemble firearm kits that are often sold over the internet. Visa and Mastercard, which process 75% of all credit card transactions in the United States, have so far refused to do so. Mastercard’s board unanimously recommended that shareholders vote against a new proposal that calls on the company to take action.
“Payment processors like MasterCard absolutely have the ability to restrict transactions related to ghost guns on their platforms,” said Seth Magaziner, the general treasurer of Rhode Island, who wrote the proposal. “They have the ability to do that and they are choosing not to.”
A BuzzFeed News investigation last month found that though Mastercard and Visa closely track businesses that have been flagged for lying to customers, lying to banks, and breaking the law, they rarely cut those businesses off. Instead, the card networks continue to facilitate the businesses’ transactions and to collect a percentage of every sale.
In February, George Gascón, the district attorney of Los Angeles County, asked Visa, Mastercard, and American Express to stop processing online purchases of ghost guns. “By your action, you can prevent a ghost gun from being sold over the internet with a few mere clicks on a smartphone or a computer,” the letters said. “It is to your company’s sense of right and wrong to which we now appeal.” Discussions with the card networks are ongoing, he said, though there has been no shift in policies from the networks on this issue so far.
Gascón said he is hopeful this will eventually change. “Good corporate citizenship can put a stop to bad businesses that would otherwise flourish because the law is always going to be inadequate to fully address the problem,” he said.
Darcel Clark, the Bronx district attorney, and Joyce Dudley, the DA of Santa Barbara, who are cochairs of the advocacy group Prosecutors Against Gun Violence, wrote a similar letter to Mastercard and Visa last month on behalf of more than 50 district attorneys from across the country who make up the organization.
Clark and Dudley say that Visa did not respond, and last week, Mastercard officials said in a call with the district attorneys that the company would not shut off the payments unless there was clear evidence of illegal activity.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Visa said it “requires each transaction processed over our network to be legal in both the buyer’s and seller’s jurisdictions. We do not tolerate the use of our network and products for illegal activity, and we are vigilant in our efforts to deter illegal activity on our network.”
A spokesperson for Mastercard said, “We believe that it is the responsibility of elected officials to enact meaningful policies to address the issue of gun violence, while it remains Mastercard’s role to ensure that consumers are permitted to make lawful purchases on our network.” It added that it’s working to ensure its products are not used to purchase these weapons in jurisdictions where they are not legal.
“American Express is committed to complying with all applicable laws and regulations related to the sale of firearms on our network, and requires all merchants who accept American Express cards to adhere to them,” the credit card company said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
But 11 states as well as Washington, DC, have already passed legislation restricting the sale of ghost guns. And in April, the Justice Department announced new federal rules that will require retailers to include serial numbers on firearms and run background checks before selling the weapons, effective Aug. 24.
In the meantime, websites like ghostguns.com boast a countdown clock to when the new regulations are in effect, encouraging consumers to buy them now. Many of their bestsellers are already out of stock, the site shows. Until August, sites like these may sell kits that include components of weapons and can be easily assembled into a firearm. Since the parts aren’t classified as a firearm under current federal rules, background checks aren’t required and the weapons are not required to be registered and may lack serial numbers — all of which makes them nearly impossible to trace and an attractive option for criminals or simply anyone banned from gun ownership. The owner of ghostguns.com did not respond to calls or texts from BuzzFeed News.
“I was hoping that they would want to be leaders in this and take the lead, even though it's not illegal right now,” Clark said. “You know how devastating and damaging these kits are? Be a leader and do it anyway.”
Dudley told BuzzFeed News she was frustrated after the call with Mastercard officials. “They said they want to work with us but it’s not clear what that means,” she said. “I want all of us to do everything we can to reduce gun violence.”
Law enforcement officials say that ghost guns have played an increasingly large role in violent crime across the country in recent years. Between January 2016 and December 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reported ghost guns had been involved in 692 homicide or attempted homicide investigations. In 2021, about 20,000 ghost guns were recovered from crime scenes and reported to the ATF.
“We don’t have to imagine how dangerous these guns are, we’ve seen it happen,” said Clark, the Bronx district attorney.
Recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have reignited the push for additional gun control legislation. Earlier this week, the Senate reached a deal on a federal gun safety bill that includes expanded background checks and the power for authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people who are considered dangerous.
Mastercard and Visa do not have a direct relationship with merchants that sell items like ghost guns, but they can compel banks to not allow payments from specific merchants on their networks. Both have previously shut off action to websites even when the activity wasn’t strictly illegal, including the websites Pornhub and Backpage.
Magaziner, the author of the Mastercard shareholder proposal, said that since March 2020, he has had a series of meetings with card officials about shutting off payments to ghost guns, but he said the meetings went nowhere. The proposal was co-filed by a number of other shareholders including Connecticut Treasurer Shawn Wooden and Mercy Investment Services.
“It's short-sighted,” Magaziner said. “The quality of the brand is linked to corporate behavior. And so for Mastercard as a brand, it makes sense for them to disassociate themselves with socially destructive products, including ghost guns.”
The proposal is up for a vote on June 21.