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As governors across the country lock down their states and permit only businesses that are deemed essential for people’s health and well-being to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, many are asking what constitutes an “essential business.”
Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations are obvious answers, but there is one industry that has divided local officials – and citizens – over whether it is really an essential business: gun stores.
With firearms and ammunition retailers from New York to California reporting record sales over the last few weeks, state governors are deciding whether to allow dealers to keep their doors open or not.
As of Thursday, seven states in total – Delaware, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Washington -- have issued orders for gun dealers to close up shop for the foreseeable future, while 17 others have explicitly allowed them to stay open, albeit in some cases with customer and operating restrictions.
“What we don’t want to have happen are these kind of panic purchases like we’re seeing right now with first-time buyers,” Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Campaign, told Fox News. “We’ll get a vaccine for the coronavirus and this will all pass, but these guns will be still be in people’s homes.”
The remaining states have either not yet issued any orders regarding gun stores or have left the decision up to county officials or local law enforcement.
The shuttering of guns stores under lockdown orders has already led to widespread complaints – and in some cases legal action – by Second Amendment rights groups across the country.
“Some anti-gun lawmakers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to deny you and your loved ones your fundamental right to self-defense and your Second Amendment rights,” the National Rifle Association said in a note to its members. “These anti-gun and anti-self defense extremists deem gun stores ‘non-essential,’ they shut down issuance of firearm permits, and, in some locations, they have created extreme delays for background checks required for firearm transfers.”
In New Jersey, the lockdown order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy included licensed firearms dealers as “non-essential retail businesses” and directed them to close to the public. The state also shut down new submissions to its background check system, which effectively put any new gun sale in the state on hold.
Murphy’s order has led a gun shop in the state along with the pro-gun Second Amendment Foundation to file a lawsuit in federal court -- arguing that the order violates the constitutional right to bear arms.
“Of all the states that have put a ban on gun sales, New Jersey is far and away the worst,” Second Amendment Foundation executive vice president Alan Gottlieb told Fox News. “In New Jersey, they’ve not only shut down gun stores, they’ve also shut down the state’s database to do background checks so it’s basically an absolute ban on the sale on firearms in the state of New Jersey.”
In neighboring Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf reversed his previous order to close gun shops, allowing dealers to open their doors on a limited basis during the coronavirus pandemic after several justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court urged him to do so.
Firearms dealers may now sell their wares by individual appointment during limited hours as long as they comply with social distancing guidelines and take other measures to protect employees and customers from the coronavirus, the governor's office said.
Wolf's office did not announce the policy change. It was included on an updated list of businesses that are subject to his order to close their physical locations because they have been deemed “non-life-sustaining.”
Gun rights advocates hailed the decision to allow gun shops to reopen.
“I am extremely pleased that Governor Wolf has acknowledged that he may not eviscerated citizens’ inviolate rights, regardless of any states of emergency that may exist,” said Joshua Prince, who had filed suit on behalf of a gun shop and a would-be gun purchaser.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had narrowly dismissed Prince's suit, which challenged Wolf’s authority to shutter businesses deemed “non-life-sustaining,” but in a dissenting statement joined by two other justices, Justice David Wecht said Wolf’s order amounts to “an absolute and indefinite prohibition upon the acquisition of firearms by the citizens of this commonwealth — a result in clear tension with the Second Amendment” and the state constitution.
While the gun control debate generally falls along party lines, the coronavirus pandemic has usurped the normal order. Liberal Democrat lawmakers, like Wolf and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker are permitting gun stores to remain open as essential businesses, while Republicans like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker have ordered them closes.
Then there is California where Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has deferred to each county's sheriff’s office to determine whether or not to order gun stores closed.
“I believe in people’s right to bear arms but I’ll defer to the sheriff in this instance, the sheriffs in their respective jurisdictions,” said Newsom during a press conference on Wednesday.
In the Northern California counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin guns stores were deemed “nonessential” and ordered to close – although there have been reports that some remain open or are allowing customers to pick up weapons that had already been ordered.
In rural Kern County, gun shops have been allowed to remain open with stores reporting record sales amid the coronavirus crisis.
“We have had a line out people out the door,” Berge K., an employee at Valley Guns Inc. in Bakersfield, told Fox News. “It’s mostly people buying self-defense shotguns and handguns, and most are first-time buyers.”
In Los Angeles County – the country’s most populous -- Sheriff Alex Villanueva reversed on Wednesday his previous order to close gun shops, saying in a tweet that “LA County Sheriff’s Dept. Enforcement efforts to close non-essential businesses have been suspended.”
Villanueva had previously said a “loophole” had allowed stores to stay open, but it was meant to keep open only gun and ammunition businesses that support police departments and other security organizations. In an interview with Fox11, Villanueva said the decision to reverse course came after “the county’s top lawyer put out a legal opinion that she believes gun stores are essential businesses and should remain open.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.