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Lawsuit over buying rifles brings gun debate to retail stores

Area law professor says Oregon 20-year-old has strong case

Part of the debate over gun laws has now moved to retail stores.

A 20-year-old in Oregon is suing Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods for refusing to sell him a rifle after the retailers changed their policies after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting to bump the age from 18 to 21.

In both Oregon and Virginia, anyone who is 18 or older can buy a rifle. The lawsuit alleges age discrimination, for which Virginia has laws similar to Oregon.

Liberty University law professor Jeff Tuomala said Tyler Watson, the person suing the corporations, has a strong case.

“It looks like a pretty good claim by the plaintiff to me,” he said.

Because of anti-discrimination laws, like those in Virginia, it would appear retailers can't prevent certain people from buying certain items, unless, like alcohol and tobacco products, they're regulated.

“Whether Walmart or other stores can come up with some defense that's going to be specifically related to the sale of guns is another question,” Tuomala said.

That might involve trying to prove that 18-to-20-year-olds are less responsible.

There’s a similar argument from some New York City bars that only let in people who are 25 and older, keeping out 21-to-24-year-olds.

“So we don't get sued for serving somebody that we're afraid is not responsible, might by analogy have some defense like that for the sale of firearms,” Tuomala said of the relationship.

But he said the spirit of the law would point to 18-year-olds being able to buy rifles in any store that sells them.

“There's some age when you're able to make decisions and you ought to be held accountable for them,” he said.

Tuomala said if a state sides with the corporations it may be opening itself up to lawsuits based on Second Amendment rights.

“Saying you may discriminate on the basis of age for anyone under 21, now you've discriminated against a person's Second Amendment right,” he said.

He added that there's nothing preventing a similar lawsuit from popping up in Virginia.

18 states, which includes Virginia, and Washington, D.C., prohibit age-based discrimination in areas of public accommodation, which includes retail stores.

A Walmart spokesperson says the retailer will defend its policy. Representatives from Dick's haven't given a response to media requests.