DHS guidelines advise states to let gun stores stay open amid coronavirus pandemic

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An agency within the Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance telling states that they should allow gun retailers and shooting ranges to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic as a debate swirls about whether such businesses are "essential" and should be permitted to continue operating as governments urge people to stay home to avoid spreading the disease.

The guidance, which came from Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs on Saturday, tells states that "[w]orkers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges" are part of the "essential critical infrastructure workforce."

Though the guidance goes out of its way to say its recommendations are not mandatory, the inclusion of weapons manufacturers and retailers rankled gun-safety activists, including Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Campaign.

"While DHS’ guidance is advisory, it is ill-conceived and dangerous. State and local governments are well within their constitutional rights to broadly close businesses in order to prevent the spread and flatten the curve, and they are definitely not required to designate gun industry businesses as ‘essential’ and keep them open," Brown said in a statement. "There is no constitutional right to immediately buy or sell guns, and there is certainly no right to spread coronavirus while buying or selling guns."

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Brown continued: "Brady continues to affirm the rights of state and local governments to temporarily close these businesses and opposes baseless lawsuits that claim otherwise, such as the NRA’s against the state of California."

As states have moved to limit the opportunities for public interaction in an effort to keep people in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, they've left banks, groceries and convenience stores open as essential businesses. Places like movie theatres and bars were obvious answers for businesses that could be shut down. But gun retailers, which have seen a significant uptick in sales as people worry just how bad the coronavirus crisis might get, have gotten different treatment in different states.

States including Delaware, New York and Michigan have ordered that gun retailers close for the foreseeable future while many others have exempted the gun shops from the closures.

That disparity exists because closing gun shops is a sticky constitutional issue. Guns are certainly less essential than groceries to peoples' survival, meaning closing them could help slow the spread of the coronavirus while not causing people to starve. But the Second Amendment provides strong protections for Americans' right to bear arms, so the government preventing people from acquiring guns, even temporarily, raises constitutional questions.

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A California policy allowing local law enforcement to decide whether or not their gun shops may remain open during the pandemic led to a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association (NRA) to force the state to keep its gun retailers open, which was filed on Friday.

"Municipalities who target lawful gun stores for closure aren’t promoting safety—by weaponizing their politics to disarm you and your loved ones, these shameless partisans are recklessly promoting a gun-control agenda that suffocates your self-defense rights when you need them most," NRA Institute for Legislative Action Executive Director Jason Ouimet said in a statement.

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The gun-rights group applauded the DHS guidance that was issued on Saturday.

"Nothing is more important than the ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones, especially during uncertain times," Amy Hunter, the NRA's director of public relations, told Fox News Monday. "President Trump made clear that he understands this fundamental fact by recommending all gun stores remain open as essential businesses. The NRA remains vigilant as anti-gun lawmakers attempt to exploit the pandemic to pursue gun control. We will take any action necessary to ensure the American people can defend their families."

Firearm-related businesses were just one of many topics addressed in the Saturday DHS guidance. It provided states and localities with recommendations on essential businesses in industries ranging from agriculture to energy to transportation.

Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and the Associated Press contributed to this report.