Travis Chiasson, a co-owner of Brothers Firearm Shop in Grand Forks, has had his share of trouble as a gun seller, especially with so many banks nervous to back firearms.
"Just getting a bank to take us, when we first started business, was very difficult. It was more so on the credit-card processing side,” Chiasson said. "It seems like (the banking industry) is under heavy political pressure to do things.”
Chiasson has been in business since 2015. Right now, he said, he’s working with a nationally known bank — he declined to say which — and though it’s been a patch of smooth sailing, he’s always worried things could change.
“Anything funding-related is always difficult,” he said. ”If you're trying to take a collateral-backed loan with collateral that's restricted, it's going to be difficult."
Those troubles, and those pressures on gunsellers, follow years of mass shootings that have prompted banks to move away from backing firearms. In 2018, weeks after a high school shooter killed 17 in Parkland, Fla., Citigroup announced a new set of requirements for gun-sellers served by the bank. Among them: A ban on the sale of certain high-capacity magazines and a ban on sales to anyone younger than 21.
The moves are typical of a financial sector that’s grown wary of investment in all kinds of industries — like fossil fuels, guns and more — where capitalism is crashing up against conscience. And Chiasson, fretting that President Joe Biden’s administration could bring more gun control measures, is already wondering if Brothers Firearm Shop should change banks.
Chiasson’s worries come as Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., backs a new bill that would require banks to do business with all kinds of legal industries — regardless of how the banks feel about it. To Cramer, the issue is about discrimination. He argues that banks should only be making financial decisions about who to work with — not political ones. The bill includes similar provisions for payment cards.
“North Dakotans support the Constitution, and local gun shops already have an increasingly difficult time keeping their shelves stocked,” Cramer said, arguing that bankers’ pressure on the gun industry hurts North Dakotans’ ability “to exercise their Second Amendment rights.” And he added his concern for the state’s energy industry — an economic engine for the region — and what might happen if banks deny it their support.
“Refusing to give our legally-compliant energy producers the financial tools they need to stay up and running … could decimate our state and its communities,” Cramer said.
It looks unlikely that Cramer’s bill is going anywhere in a Democratic Congress. And, just weeks after its introduction, there have already been tragic shootings around the country — including in Atlanta, Ga.; Boulder, Colo.; and southern California, where about 20 people were killed across three mass shootings this year. And late Thursday evening, April 15, at least eight died in a shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis.
It raises strong concerns for gun-control advocates, who fret that the bill strengthens a gun industry that takes American lives.
"Guns are only created to take out life, or maim it, or destroy it,” said Susan Beehler, a Mandan, N.D.-based gun control advocate who founded a local chapter of Moms Demand Action. “(Forced relationships with gun dealers) would be a great liability. That would be the same as a bank knowing that (a car maker) is producing cars that blow up — that’s too high of a liability.”
Cramer’s response, provided in a statement from his office, offers sympathy for gun violence victims’ families. But it also makes a Second Amendment argument, pointing out that without banks’ support, some Americans might lose “access” to that right.
Rick Clayburgh, president and CEO of the North Dakota Bankers Association, said the bill has little effect on local lenders, since the policy would only affect institutions with $10 billion in assets. But he said he expects it to be a policy that’s popular in the upper Midwest. And, he said, he’s not aware of any locally-based bank that wouldn’t lend to a legal business.
“I'm going to be visiting with my board about the bill to get their feeling on it,” he said. “As we look at it, the type of business that is focused on in the bill would be very difficult for most of our banks to be involved in lending — to lend, for example, into the energy sector. That requires large financing packages."
Cramer’s fight today in the financial sector resembles his sabre-rattling at the press in 2017, when he criticized national broadcasters’ political coverage, which he felt skewed left. He pointed out that broadcasters like ABC and NBC use federal airwaves to reach viewers — prompting a discussion about the free press, and how far the government can go in regulating it.
That bears a loose resemblance to Cramer’s bill now. He’s fighting decisions by banks instead of coverage decisions by broadcasters. But Cramer’s bill still raises questions of how far the government can go when it regulates private business. After all, is it appropriate for the government to tell lenders which industries they have to support?
Cramer’s answer is yes.
“Large financial service providers play a virtually indispensable role in the economy, and they are able to do so in part because their insurance on deposits is backed by the federal government and paid for by the taxpayer,” Cramer told the Grand Forks Herald in a prepared statement. “Our bill ensures they operate in a safe and sound manner, making decisions based on sound reasoning and empirical data rather than outside political pressure.”