Left-leaning lawmakers and blue state officials seem to have an incredibly difficult time not using Coronavirus as an excuse to order lockdowns of businesses that afford access to constitutionally protected rights. States like Pennsylvania, California, New York, and Massachusetts were quick to ban gun stores from operating during their local quarantine and Covid-19 lockdown orders, saying such businesses are not essential. Never mind those same states often ignored companies like Gamestop and Hobby Lobby that defied those same orders.
The battle against so many states’ gun store bans has taken a positive turn. Federal Judge Douglas P. Woodlock last week issued a preliminary injunction that allows gun stores to resume operating in Massachusetts as long as they adhere to a set of social distancing rules. This first ruling, issued at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, sets an important precedent for what are likely many more battles to come in other states. Bay State Governor Charles G. Baker issued on March 13 the order that required all business not deemed “essential” to close. Gun stores were excluded from that essential list.
Since Judge Woodlock’s ruling, Gov. Baker issued a new order that complies with Department of Homeland Security guidelines issued March 28. Those guidelines, updated by the Trump administration, suggests that “Workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges” are critical infrastructure. The full guidance, drafted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (“CISA”), is intended to provide all states with a universal policy by which to guide business closures and operations. Some Democrat governors have expressed their dissent against this guidance.
“It wouldn’t have been my definition but that is the definition at the federal level, and I didn’t get a vote on that,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, said during a media briefing. Murphy indicated to reporters that, in light of the March 28 guidance, he would reverse a decision not to include guns stores on the state’s list of essential businesses. Murphy was already facing multiple lawsuits from gun groups after his initial lockdown order was filed. Other governors were less inclined to defy constitutionality.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf bowed to the Firearms Policy Coalition, a civil rights law firm that sued Wolf, alleging he overstepped his statutory and constitutional authority in declaring gun shop “non-life-sustaining businesses.” Wolf later revised his order to allow gun stores to operate under restricted circumstances. On the Pacific shores, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he would close firearm retailers, while the Sheriff of San Diego County said he would not close them because they provide a valuable public service. Numerous lawsuits filed by other gun groups like the National Rifle Association prompted the Los Angeles District Attorney to indicate that gun shops could stay open. Villanueva has since reversed his decision. In New York, the NRA sued Governor Andrew Cuomo who also wrote on March 20 that gun stores were not essential businesses. The New York suit said officials are “going out of their way to protect liquor stores and release criminals onto the streets, while ignoring the public’s outcry over the suspension of Second Amendment rights.” Gov. Cuomo had deemed liquor stores essential businesses.
Meanwhile, anti-gun groups have strongly criticized the states that adhere to federal guidelines and do allow gun stores to remain open. “Instead of listening to the gun lobby’s argument that they deserve special treatment during a pandemic that has nothing to do with guns, our leaders should heed the advice of public health experts, who are in the best position to evaluate the risks of virus transmission at gun stores and any other business,” said Hannah Shearer, the litigation director at Giffords, a gun-safety group co-founded by former Representative Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat. Everytown for Gun Safety, another gun control group, was quick to deride lawsuits filed by groups like the NRA and FPC: “As broad laws that apply to thousands of businesses, these closure orders are clearly designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, not undermine anyone’s Second Amendment rights,” Eric Tirschwell, an Everytown spokesman said in a statement. “The courts have made clear that broad, generally applicable laws like these are constitutional.”
Claimed ambiguity over what constitutes an essential business and lobbying from anti-gun groups, combined with the executive power of anti-gun officials in a time of crisis, illustrate why the Massachusetts injunction is so important for gun rights.
If your state or local officials are attempting to unconstitutionally ban gun stores from operating, drop us a tip. Contact the NRA and Gun Owners of America to advocate for legal action to be taken, and contact your state representative here.