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A 20-year-old is suing Dick's and Walmart over new gun policies, alleging age discrimination

A customer carries a purchase while exiting a Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. store in Sterling Heights, Michigan, on Aug. 18, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Sean Proctor

Last week, as the nation reckoned with the school shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart decided to raise the minimum age for buying a firearm and ammunition to 21 from 18.

Now the retailers are being sued.

Tyler Watson, 20, alleges he encountered age discrimination when he tried to purchase a .22-caliber Ruger rifle on Feb. 24 - four days before the companies announced their new policies - at Field & Stream, an outdoors sports store in Medford, Oregon, owned by Dick's. In Oregon, state law allows residents to purchase firearms at age 18.

About a week later, on Saturday, Watson went to Walmart to again try to purchase the gun. He was turned away, according to a lawsuit filed in Josephine County Monday.

"He had heard something about the policy change but he didn't expect to be denied service," said Max Whittington, Watson's lawyer. "He went in with the intent to buy a rifle, not to test the new policies."

The lawsuit against Walmart and a second lawsuit filed against Dick's in Jackson County on Monday both allege that the companies' policies violated Oregon discrimination law, which prohibits a place of public accommodation from refusing to serve a customer based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or age. The only exceptions to the age rule apply to the sale of alcohol or marijuana to minors and special discounts or services for seniors.

The lawsuit further alleges that Walmart unlawfully advertised its "discriminatory policies" by issuing a press release on Feb. 28 announcing the change.

Walmart said it would raise its age requirement "in light of recent events," most likely the nation's gun control debate in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Other private corporations since the shooting have revised their policies in the absence of gun-control legislation, including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Best Western, and MetLife, who stopped giving discounts and perks to members of the National Rifle Association.

Earlier on Feb. 28, Dick's announced that it would stop selling assault rifles and high-capacity magazines at the 35 Field & Stream stores, and raised its minimum age for buying a firearm to 21. The retailer had already stopped selling assault-style rifles at its main stores in 2012.

Dick's changed its policies because "thoughts and prayers are not enough," Chief Executive Edward Stack said in a statement, referencing a phrase often used after mass shootings that has become increasingly mocked. Stack said he was surprised that the 19-year-old Parkland gunman had purchased a shotgun at a Dick's store last year, though that gun was not the weapon used in the school shooting.

Dick's decision to no longer sell assault-style rifles at Field & Stream means it has a heap of inventory it will never sell, The Washington Post's Todd C. Frankel, Abha Bhattarai and Rachel Siegel reported. A company spokeswoman said the retailer is unsure what it will do with the inventory but has "committed that the guns will not be made available in any marketplace in any way."

Walmart stopped selling assault-style rifles such as the AR-15, the type of rifle used in the Parkland shooting, in 2015, and said it would now also remove guns that resemble those types of weapons from its website, including airsoft guns and toys.

"We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller of firearms and go beyond Federal law by requiring customers to pass a background check before purchasing any firearm," the company said.

Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for Walmart, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the company has not yet been served with Watson's lawsuit, but plans to defend its new policy once it does.

"We stand behind our decision and plan to defend it," Hargrove said. "Once we are served with the complaint, we will respond as appropriate with the court."

It's unclear how effective the new Walmart and Dick's policies will be in curbing gun violence. Dick's, for example, represents only a small fraction of the approximately 64,000 licensed gun stores registered with the federal government. And about 40 percent of people who buy guns purchase them from sources other than stores, such as at gun shows or from friends, according to a 2017 study.

Watson is asking judges in the two counties to stop Dick's and Walmart from "unlawfully discriminating against 18-, 19-, and 20 year-old customers" at their Oregon stores. He is also asking for an undisclosed amount of punitive damages and for his attorney fees to be paid.

Author Information: Marwa Eltagouri is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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