By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune
Firearms manufacturers are not able to sell their guns and ammo on the state’s Shop Wyoming website — and a Cody lawmaker wants the attorney general to take action against what she sees as illegal discrimination.
Last month, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, asked Attorney General Bridget Hill to use a new law to sue the Wyoming Small Business Development Center Network, which operates the online marketplace.
Williams made the request after complaints from Big Horn Armory of Cody, which has been unsuccessfully fighting for the better part of a year to list its guns on ShopWyoming.com.
The issue stems from the two large payment processors used by the site, Stripe and PayPal, as neither processor will handle sales of firearms and ammunition. But Big Horn Armory President Greg Buchel and Williams charge that the Wyoming Small Business Development Center Network itself — run by the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Business Council and the U.S. Small Business Administration — is also discriminating against the firearm industry.
“The group that controls the Shop Wyoming website has free choice over what platform is used, they are culpable for that choice,” Williams wrote to the attorney general on Oct. 29, echoing an earlier email from Buchel. “The payment processor for Shop Wyoming and by association, the Wyoming Small Business Development Center and its directors employed by the University of Wyoming are in clear violation of W.S. 13-10-302(a).”
The law in question — which generally prevents financial institutions from discriminating against firearms-related businesses — was passed by the Wyoming Legislature and enthusiastically signed by Gov. Mark Gordon in early April.
Earlier this month, AG Hill said her office will look into the issue. However, it’s unclear whether Hill could bring suit against the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Network, as the new law appears to only apply to financial institutions and not their customers or clients. That’s a point that’s been raised by the director of the Wyoming SBDC Network, Jill Kline.
Emails provided by Buchel indicate there’s also been some uncertainty as to whether out-of-state payment processors like PayPal and Stripe are subject to the law. The legislation also says that financial institutions can choose not to provide services to gun companies “for a business or financial reason.”
While the attorney general’s office has only agreed to look into the issue, Buchel called it “the most positive action I’ve seen so far.”
In an interview, Director Kline said the SBDC has nothing against guns, and only realized the underlying ecommerce platform prohibited firearm sales after subscribing to the service.
“… we thought we had made a great selection,” Kline said in an interview. “As many of the ‘what if’ questions we asked, we obviously didn’t get them all in.”
She said the intent was never to exclude anyone.
“We’re trying to just do a program that’s going to help businesses here in Wyoming in this difficult time,” Kline said.
The Wyoming SBDC Network, which is based at the University of Wyoming, publicly launched the Shop Wyoming marketplace in February. The site was developed in partnership with an Iowa-based company that powers similar marketplaces across the country, with all of the funding provided by the federal CARES Act.
Businesses can freely sign up to offer their products on the site, which the SBDC has pitched as a place for customers to find products from numerous Wyoming-grown businesses in a single location.
Kline said it gives businesses a place or another place to sell their goods online, particularly as foot traffic may be lagging amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, as a result of the program, “we’ve helped so many businesses actually even get a website up and running,” she said.
Around 107 vendors were using the Shop Wyoming platform as of earlier this month, she said, with the site drawing nearly 65,000 pageviews through October. That’s translated to 63 orders and just less than $5,000 in sales. It’s an average of only about $50 per vendor, but Kline says the platform is still growing and SBDC is hoping for a boost this holiday season.
Buchel applied to be a seller back on Feb. 1, looking to offer Big Horn Armory’s “unique big bore lever guns and semi-auto rifles.” However, the request was soon rejected.
“Unfortunately, the payment [processor] for our site does not allow for sales of firearms or ammunition so we are unable to let you list those,” explained Shop Wyoming Project Manager Audrey Jansen. “However, if you would like to sell firearm accessories such as holsters, slings, or cuffs you may do that.”
Other retailers sell such accessories on the Shop Wyoming platform — including leatherwork made for holding bullets — and businesses can include a link back to their full site. However, Buchel said he’s not interested.
“We want to sell the guns themselves,” he said in an interview. “All of the accessories are ancillary to the whole operation — we sell guns, we build guns. That’s the deal.”
Buchel quickly brought the issue to the attention of state lawmakers.
Days after Big Horn Armory’s denial in February, state Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, asked Director Kline if the SBDC could find a different payment processor — one that would allow the state’s firearm manufacturers to sell their products through Shop Wyoming.
“Wyoming has worked hard to recruit these manufacturers,” Walters wrote, “so it only makes sense for Wyoming to offer them the same opportunities as [it] offers other [businesses] in the state.”
However, Kline said the “Shop Where I Live” ecommerce platform, created by Member Marketplace Inc. of Iowa, came with only PayPal and Stripe as payment options and that building an alternative would be cost-prohibitive.
Cody Regional Health
Kline again noted that Big Horn Armory could list its non-firearm products and link back to its full site, saying that alternative was offered “to all the businesses that have run into this challenge.”
“We want to see all of our retailers statewide be successful and we are happy to assist this individual,” Kline wrote in late February, referring to Buchel. “Unfortunately, this project will not work perfectly for every business.”
Meanwhile, state lawmakers took up House Bill 236.
The legislation generally prohibits financial institutions — defined as payments processors, financial institutions defined in state law and national banking associations — from discriminating against entities who are “engaged in the lawful commerce of firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition products.”
If a business faces such discrimination, the law says they can file a lawsuit and seek actual, treble and punitive or exemplary damages from the institution, along with recouping their costs.
It also empowers the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office to file a suit against institutions who violate the law. Under the bill, the AG can ask a judge to issue a temporary restraining order or permanent injunction against a financial institution that discriminates against firearm entities. The attorney general can also seek a civil penalty of up to $20,000 per violation for repeated discrimination — and the state could sever its business relationship with any offenders.
The final version of HB 236 passed the House on a 44-13 vote, while clearing the Senate 23-6. Gordon signed it into law April 8.
“I will relentlessly defend our Second Amendment and the Wyoming businesses involved in the firearms industry,” the governor said at the time.
In August — a month after the new law took effect — Buchel reapplied to join the Shop Wyoming platform. When he was turned down again, he charged that the Shop Wyoming processors, the Wyoming SBDC Network and its directors at the University of Wyoming were violating the law.
Kline responded by noting that UW is not a payment processor and not a financial institution.
“We simply subscribe to the ecommerce platform that hosts the site, and as a subscriber, we must comply with the terms and conditions provided by the platform,” she wrote in the email conversation, which included a few lawmakers.
Buchel, however, said it seemed that the organizations were “culpable” for their choice of platform.
“We again ask you to reconsider your decision regarding this matter before further action is necessary,” he wrote.
Rep. Williams’ took up the cause in the late October email to Attorney General Hill, asking for action under the new law, and she denounced the Wyoming SBDC Network’s actions in a news release earlier this month.
“I am appalled that they are not abiding by the new law,” Williams said, praising Wyoming’s firearms industry and Big Horn Armory, which is in the process of expanding its operation.
Working through the law
Hill did not respond to a message seeking comment, but the attorney general’s office is apparently now working to determine whether the law is being followed. As it sorts through the complaint, the office will likely have to consider a number of issues. For instance, while the law prohibits discrimination against firearm companies, financial institutions can choose not to provide service if they have “a business or financial reason.”
Stripe prohibits “weapons and munitions; gunpowder and other explosives” as part of a category of banned items it describes as “regulated or illegal products or services.” Additional items in the category include products containing tobacco, marijuana or CBD, prescription-only drugs, fireworks and toxic, flammable and radioactive materials.
(Gambling services, adult content, bankruptcy lawyers, psychic services and door-to-door sales are also banned, among other things.) PayPal prohibits its services from being used on a smaller, but similar list of transactions.
On their websites, neither PayPal nor Stripe specifically explain why they ban firearm and ammo-related sales. A general Stripe FAQ on its restricted businesses offers that, “for now, due to various reasons, including requirements that apply to Stripe as a payment processor, requirements from our financial partners, and the potential risk exposure to Stripe, we’re currently not able to work with certain industries.”
In Buchel’s discussions with state officials, some questions have been raised about whether Stripe and PayPal are subject to the law. An attorney in the Legislative Service Office indicated to Rep. Walters that they likely are, though he called the question “a tricky one” within “a considerably complicated field of law.”
For his part, Buchel thinks the situation with the Shop Wyoming platform is clear.
“They’re discriminating,” he said in an interview, adding, “They’re taking a hard line and, you know, they’re wrong.”
If the attorney general ultimately declines to file a suit, Buchel continues to have the option to hire a private attorney and take legal action himself.