Young Oregonians fight to buy guns, ammo — and sue when they’re denied
One of six age-discrimination lawsuits filed against Oregon retailers for refusing to sell guns or ammunition to young adults under 21 went down in flames this week.
Airion Grace wanted $1.01 million from Bi-Mart. He says he was 20 when a Hillsboro employee refused to sell shotgun shells to him because of a new store policy to limit the sale of guns and ammunition.
But Washington County Circuit Judge Charles Bailey refused to award Grace any damages, saying he couldn’t determine if the young man actually tried to buy the ammunition on March 6, a few days before he filed suit. The judge cited factual problems with Grace’s testimony and inconsistencies between his testimony and that of his girlfriend’s.
Three similar lawsuits are headed toward trial in Lane, Jackson and Josephine counties. Two other lawsuits have settled for undisclosed amounts with Fred Meyer and Dick’s Sporting Goods, which owns the Field & Stream chain.
Oregon courts and state regulators have been asked to rule on the legalities of policies enacted by major retailers in the weeks after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Seventeen students and staff died after a 19-year-old former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The stores said they have a social responsibility to go beyond local and national gun control laws by adopting more restrictive limits on who they sell guns to or what guns they sell.
Federal law bans firearms retailers from selling handguns, but not rifles or shotguns, to anyone under 21. Oregon law allows residents to buy shotguns or rifles starting at age 18.
By mid-March, two weeks after Fred Meyer enacted a 21-and-over policy, the chain took things a step further by announcing it was phasing out the sale of firearms and ammunition to people of all ages.
Young adults have pushed back, saying the stores that are refusing to sell to them violate Oregon’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on a host of characteristics, including race, religion, sexual orientation and age.
In addition to the six lawsuits, six other young adults have filed complaints with officials at the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. While the labor bureau is still in the preliminary or investigatory stages of most of those cases, it has made a recommendation in one of them:
That Walmart should pay $5,000 in damages for “physical, mental and emotional distress” to Hannah Brumbles, who at age 18 in March went to the St. Helens Walmart in Columbia County and was denied when she tried to buy a rifle.
The labor bureau alleged that Walmart violated state anti-discrimination law in doing so. An administrative law judge is set to hear the case and make a ruling in January.
Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, said the retailer believes it has the right to set its own policy and that doesn’t conflict with Oregon law.
“We stand behind our decision, our policy,” Hargrove said Friday.
The labor bureau’s recommendation doesn’t mean that its commissioner, Brad Avakian, believes it’s a bad idea to keep 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from buying guns and ammunition. He plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that raises Oregon’s gun- and ammo-buying age to 21, said bureau spokeswoman Christine Lewis.
The bill also would include an exception to the state’s anti-discrimination law, stating it’s not illegal to deny the sale of guns and ammunition to those under 21. The exception would be similar to clauses written in the law that prevent people under 21 from buying alcohol or marijuana, Lewis said.
In Washington County, where Grace went to trial against Bi-Mart, the judge was sympathetic to many of Grace’s arguments. Bailey said he thought it was up to the Legislature and not individual retailers to set the legal age for buying guns and ammunition.
But Bailey said he wouldn’t order Bi-Mart to retract its policy based on Grace’s claim because he found the case to be riddled with problems.
Grace, who turned 21 last week, said he was deeply embarrassed when he asked a clerk at the gun sales counter to sell him some federal 12-gauge shotgun ammunition and she apologized, pointing to the store’s new 21-and-older policy.
“I felt quite lesser than, and it made me feel like a second-class citizen,” Grace testified during his trial Thursday. “… I just left empty-handed.”
Grace said he started counseling last month and he’s hoping it will help with his embarrassment.
“It gave me just feelings of anxiety,” Grace said, noting there were other people around him when he was denied. “There were — what I felt like — some prying eyes.”
Grace said he’d successfully bought shotgun ammunition at the gun sales counter at least five times before.
But Bi-Mart’s lawyer, Samuel Anderson, called on a Bi-Mart executive who said the chain doesn’t sell ammunition at its gun sales counters. Rather, customers must make the purchase at the front registers.
“It’s clear from his testimony that he was not truthful,” Anderson told the judge.
Grace also testified that he next went to Fred Meyer and was denied there, too. He went home without buying any ammunition that day, he said. But Grace’s girlfriend, Lilia Roberts, testified that she was with him and they went to Big 5 Sporting Goods after that and that Grace bought ammunition there.
Grace and his attorney, Max Whittington, left the courtroom clearly disappointed. Grace declined comment, saying he just wanted to go home.
Whittington said there will be other battles. In January, Whittington will represent another client in trial against Walmart: Tyler Watson is suing a Walmart in Grants Pass for $10,000, claiming the store rejected his attempt to buy a rifle.
In March, Whittington is scheduled to go to trial in the case of Brandy Dalbeck, who filed a $10,000 lawsuit after she claims Bi-Mart’s Florence store refused to sell her a 20-gauge, duck-hunting shotgun that she tried to buy when she was 18 in June.
Another client, Timmothy Kochen, hasn’t been scheduled for trial yet. He is suing Walmart, claiming that its Medford store in August refused to sell him shotgun shells and some clay pigeons for target shooting. Kochen was 20 years old at the time.
— Aimee Green
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