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Barring gun sales to minors hits a snag

The desire to take swift action to limit access to firearms in the wake of the latest school shooting is understandable, and many applauded when Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart announced they would stop selling guns to anyone under 21. But a 20-year-old Southern Oregon man's lawsuits against both stores suggest that quick response may not stand up everywhere.

In the lawsuits filed against Dick's in Medford and Walmart in Grants Pass, Tyler Watson says the stores discriminated against him based on his age.

The 19-year-old accused of killing 17 in a Parkland, Florida, high school last month legally purchased the AR-15 rifle he allegedly used. Many Americans called for restricting firearm sales to minors, and the CEO of Dick's said those stores and their Field and Stream subsidiaries would limit gun sales to people 21 and over. Walmart did the same.

That might be a reasonable precaution — as long as the gun retailers have the legal authority to  impose such a restriction. But in Oregon, it appears state law is on the side of the 20-year-old plaintiff who says he was discriminated against when Dick's and Walmart refused to sell him a gun.

Oregon law allows age-related restrictions for alcohol and marijuana sales, but not gun sales, according to Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who heads the Bureau of Labor and Industries, which is accepting complaints from Oregonians who say they were discriminated against. The bureau will propose a bill to the 2019 Legislature to add age restrictions for gun sales, but until lawmakers take action, any retailer refusing to sell a gun to a minor 18 or older is risking a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in Congress to raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase a semi-automatic rifle, but that bill has not yet been enacted.

Whether such age restrictions would prevent future mass shootings is a matter of considerable debate. It certainly seems reasonable to us to limit the purchase of semi-automatic and high-capacity weapons to those 21 and over. But supporters of that idea, including retailers, may have to wait for the law to catch up first.