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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — A Walmart in Kissimmee, Florida is shown in this Jan. 5, 2017 file photo. - Photo by The Associated Press

A 20-year-old Oregon man is suing Walmart Inc. and Dick's Sporting Goods Inc., challenging the retailers' recent decisions to raise the required age for purchasing a firearm in their stores.

Tyler Watson claims in lawsuits filed in Oregon circuit court that he encountered unlawful age discrimination when the retailers refused to sell him a rifle because he is under the age of 21.

The complaints came less than a week after the companies publicly revealed plans to tighten their firearm sales policies in response to last month's attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people at the Parkland, Fla., school.

According to the lawsuit, Watson tried to buy a .22-caliber Ruger rifle from Field & Stream -- which is owned by Dick's Sporting Goods -- on Feb. 24. But Watson was informed by an employee the company had a new policy in place and would not sell firearms or ammunition to anyone under 21.

His attempt to buy the rifle came four days before Dick's publicly announced it was imposing a new age requirement along with plans to stop selling assault-style weapons in its Field & Stream stores.

Watson also tried to purchase a rifle at Walmart on Saturday but was denied because of his age. A Walmart employee cited the company's new age requirement, according to the lawsuit filed two days later.

Watson's attorney, Max Whittington, did not return a message Tuesday. But Whittington told The Oregonian the lawsuits could be the first legal challenge to the new minimum age requirement for purchasing firearms and ammunition.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said Tuesday he was not aware of any other lawsuits challenging Walmart's new policy. Hargrove said the company will stand by its age restriction in the Oregon case.

"In light of recent events, we reviewed our policy on firearm sales. As a result, we raised the age restriction for the purchase of firearms and ammunition to 21 years of age," Hargrove said in a statement. "We stand behind our decision and plan to defend it. Once we are served with the complaint, we will respond as appropriate with the Court."

Oregon residents are allowed to purchase shotguns and rifles beginning at age 18. The lawsuit said the retailers are violating laws prohibiting discrimination in any place of public accommodation based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age.

Public accommodation is defined as any place or service offering to the public "accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges whether in the nature of goods, services, lodgings, amusements, transportation or otherwise," Oregon law says.

Josh Silverstein, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's W.H. Bowen School of Law, said state discrimination statutes are often narrowly restricted to employment age discrimination or older individuals. Other states that prohibit age discrimination regarding public accommodations also may narrow the scope to businesses like hotels, but not retail stores.

But Silverstein believes Watson has a "good argument" regarding age discrimination in any place of public accommodation in Oregon because of the state's definitions.

"It's very broad," Silverstein said. "Given Oregon is a more liberal state, it's not that shocking that these laws would be really broad there. So they have an argument."

Watson is asking for injunctive relief to force Walmart and Dick's to stop unlawfully discriminating against 18, 19, and 20-year-old customers at all Oregon locations. He also is asking for unspecified punitive damages.

Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, believes there will be additional legal challenges to the new policies in states with statutes supporting claims of age discrimination in any place of public accommodation. He said about one-third of states have laws that ban businesses from discriminating on the basis of age. Winkler also said he wouldn't be surprised if attorneys general get involved in some instances.

"Obviously, while these laws were not intended to protect the ability of 18- to 20-year-olds to buy AR-15s, that really is their effect and they take it out of the retailer's hands in terms of picking and choosing who they can sell to," Winkler said. "To make a blanket policy to discriminate on the basis of age, in a state that has said you can't discriminate on the basis of age, is going to cause legal trouble."

The U.S. House of Representatives is planning to consider a school safety bill next week, according to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

The bill would create a federal grant program to train students, teachers and school officials how to identify and intervene when signs of gun violence arrive.

Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., is the bill's sponsor and said it would help officials prevent school shootings.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has sponsored a similar bill in the Senate, but no votes on gun bills are scheduled.

Senators are first expected to address a bill intended to strengthen the federal background checks system for gun purchases. The bill --"Fix NICS" -- would penalize federal agencies that don't properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he is frustrated that lawmakers keep attempting to add gun-related proposals to his bill.

"People want to make this bill a Christmas tree, trying to decorate it with other legislative ornaments that look nice to their political base but stand no chance of passing this body or the House," Cornyn said. "I think we have to call that what it is. It's political posturing. It's not about getting a result. It's not about passing a bill which will actually improve the background check system."

Also on Tuesday, Washington became the latest state to ban trigger devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more rapidly.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the ban on bump stocks, calling it a "commonsense piece of legislation," that will "help save lives from mass gun violence."

Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Daly and Rachel La Corte of The Associated Press.

Business on 03/07/2018

Print Headline: Walmart, Dick's sued over gun-age policy

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