After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, the US at large revisited gun rights, the second amendment, and the ongoing conversation about responsible gun ownership. Citizens have expressed opinions all over the board in response to the death of 17 people in a high school, ranging from the ban of all guns to arming teachers themselves with firearms. Surviving students from the incident are in the process of organizing a march and petitioning for stricter legislation to govern who can and cannot own firearms and under what circumstances.
Certain private businesses, though, have taken matters into their own hands. Both Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart issued press releases stating that they would not sell firearms to customers under 21, stop carrying assault-style rifles altogether, and conduct stricter background checks for those who did want to purchase guns. These announcements were generally met with praise from activists who want to make it harder to obtain weapons.
Last week, though, a 20-year-old man in Oregon filed a lawsuit alleging that the new policy is discriminatory and violates his rights. Put most simply, Oregon’s anti-discrimination laws prohibit businesses from barring certain patrons from their services based on race, sex, age, or other characteristics. Tyler Watson’s argument is that, since he is legally permitted to be sold a gun, Dick’s cannot withhold their services simply based on age.
Citing “discrimination” has long been a way to draw parallels to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that fought against the rights that private businesses had to decline business from patrons of color. After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment were supposed to help achieve equality after slavery and ensure that black citizens, both freed and newly-freed, were provided “equal protection under the law.” However, a number of Supreme Court cases eroded the power of the 14th amendment. Firstly, its scope was limited to include only formal laws and did not extend into the practices of private businesses.
Then, in the infamous Plessy v Ferguson case, “separate but equal” was ruled constitutional, meaning that segregation was now codified law. It wasn’t until the 1960s that laws explicitly prohibited businesses from refusing service to customers based on race, sex, and other features. Creative legal maneuvering allowed lawyers to use the Interstate Commerce Clause to derail certain restaurants’ discriminatory policies, thereby effectively forcing the Supreme Court to re-apply the 14th amendment to privately held businesses.
Today, we are still deciding how this law intersects with a person’s freedom of religious expression as outlined in the first amendment. As I’ve written about before, SCOTUS is still deliberating on this exact question in a case where a Christian baker wants to exercise his freedom of religious expression by refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.
Of course, certain forms of discrimination are not only permissible but written into law. Legally, children cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes. Felons experience limited rights in public society including the right to vote or obtain certain jobs due to their criminal past. Fraternities and sororities are permitted to refuse membership based on gender. Dick’s and Walmart have already publicly stated that they intend to defend their policy and have lawyers lined up to justify why they should be permitted to discriminate in this case, but court watchers are already thinking that Watson may have the stronger case in this instance. This suit will likely work its way up the courts and lead to another national conversation.
Florida has already changed the laws, though, which will likely avoid this problem in that state. Recently, Florida raised the age for legally purchasing a gun from 18 to 21, so private businesses will actually be in violation of the law if they sell to a 19- or 20-year-old. Of course, this move, too, has been met with friction, but Watson’s case wouldn’t stand much a chance in this state.