Retailers who responded to recent acts of gun violence by refusing to sell firearms to anyone younger than 21 are violating an Oregon anti-discrimination law governing public places, according to a Portland civil rights attorney.

But there may be room for adjustment, said Diane Sykes, a civil rights attorney in Portland. The Oregon law governing discrimination spells out specific health and safety exclusions for age when purchasing marijuana and alcohol. The same law also allows for age exceptions at retirement facilities. Because of these exceptions, an argument could be made that the Oregon Legislature wanted to leave room for other exclusions, such as for firearms, Sykes said.

“Our state’s public accommodation statute has carved out limited exceptions to the general rule that public accommodations are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of age, such as the regulation of alcohol, marijuana and facilities designated for age 50 and over,” Sykes said. “The Legislature will have to further act to clarify that the regulation of firearms between the ages of 18 and 21 is another exception to the general prohibition on age discrimination in places of public accommodation.”

Repeated calls to area lawmakers, who ended this year’s session on Saturday ,were not returned.

As of Wednesday, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, had not received any complaints by residents believing they have been denied service under Oregon civil rights law, said Charlie Burr, communications director. But in a letter to the legislative leadership in both houses, the bureau said if someone did file a complaint, the law would likely support a complaint that stores raising the age for gun sales to 21 are engaged in age discrimination.

“Generally retail stores are public accommodations, places open to the public, and are subject to Oregon civil rights protections,” Burr said.

The only exception to this anti-discrimination policy is for the sale of alcohol and marijuana. A separate law enacted in August 2017 barred anyone younger than 21 from purchasing tobacco, but doesn’t address the fact that the store is considered a public place, Sykes said.

“This is a potential conflict and could raise the same question,” Sykes said. “The Legislature needs to clarify this as well.”

Anyone believing their rights have been violated under these laws, Burr said, can file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries or go to civil court.

On Monday, Tyler Watson, 20, of Gold Hill, filed unlawful age discrimination lawsuits against Walmart Inc. and Dick’s Sporting Goods after clerks refused to sell him firearms because of his age. The attorneys representing the man did not return phone calls to The Bulletin.

The topic of discrimination in public places came to the forefront because last week, Walmart Inc., Bi-Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kroger and its 21 Fred Meyer stores announced they would stop selling firearms and ammunition to anyone under 21. Their actions came in response to the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people and wounded another 14. The shooter used a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

In addition, several major corporations — among them MetLife, Avis, Budget Group and United Airlines — took a stand by disassociating themselves from the National Rifle Association. Two weeks after the massacre in Florida, some retailers announced they would immediately stop selling assault weapons like AR-15s. Walmart stopped selling semi-automatic weapons in 2015, according to wire reports.

Businesses don’t make these decisions lightly, said Oregon State University marketing professor Amy Watson. Businesses like Walmart Inc. in particular use numbers to make decisions, Watson said.

“The way brands remain relevant is by understanding the pulse of the community and staying aligned with that,” Watson said. “These businesses understand that their decision will anger some.”

But discrimination could be costly to business owners. In a highly publicized discrimination case, an administrative judge for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries found the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2013. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the decision — and the $135,000 fine — in December.

The state Legislature has the power to regulate the sale of dangerous items like guns, said Mat dos Santos, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. Under federal law, a person must be at least 18 years old to buy shotguns and rifles and 21 to buy a handgun from a firearms dealer.

“We have seen numerous examples of this like the sale of cannabis, alcohol, and cigarettes,” dos Santos said. “Our public accommodations laws are a critical part of our legal framework in Oregon: they protect some of the most vulnerable Oregonians from discrimination. Whether a private entity can rely on legitimate public safety concerns to restrict the sale of guns to people under the age of 21 is in a legal gray area that is best resolved by the courts.”

— Reporter, 541-633-2117, sroig@bendbulletin.com .

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