The Trump administration’s move to designate firearm dealers as essential services to be kept open during the coronavirus crisis ignited outrage among gun control advocates and set the stage for new court battles.
“It simply doesn’t make any sense,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stricter gun laws. “There is no reason why gun dealers should be deemed as essential as police officers or first responders or hospital workers — people who are risking everything every day to save lives.”
A memo released Saturday by the Department of Homeland Security declared gun retailers as “essential critical infrastructure workforce” to remain open while non-essential businesses are shuttered to blunt the spread of the deadly COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The guidance, which is an advisory and not binding, attempted to resolve the debate over whether gun stores should be deemed essential.
As of Monday, 28 states have kept gun stores open, while seven have shuttered them. Some governors have added to the confusion by initially closing gun stores and then reversing course and ordering them open.
Mr. Feinblatt and other gun-control advocates slammed the guidance as “irresponsible” and “deeply unfair.”
Mr. Feinblatt urged governors across the country to ignore the federal guidance and sent a letter to DHS demanding it reverse the decision.
“Governors should feel empowered to make whatever decisions are best for their state without pressure from the federal government and without pressure from the gun lobby,” he said.
Tim Schmidt, president of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, said the memo served as a stark reminder that Americans’ constitutional rights don’t disappear during a pandemic.
“We need all levels of government and policymakers to follow the administration’s guidance to support and protect Second Amendment rights as essential,” he said. “We should not have politicians trying to undermine Americans’ right to self-protection at a time when it’s more important than ever.”
The debate heated up as gun sales have soared in response to the deadly and fast-spreading virus, including first-time gun owners arming themselves out of fear the coronavirus will lead to social upheaval and chaos.
Those who follow the gun rights debate don’t expect the Trump administration to issue more stringent guidance but they do anticipate a legal showdown that could head to the Supreme Court.
“To say that a gun store is non-essential is the first step towards martial law where you put the constitution on hold,” Mr. Schmidt said. “It would be just as bad if they shut the Second Amendment down for two days, but these closures are indefinite.”
Lawsuits against states that have deemed gun retailers non-essential have been racking up, but only one state court has weighed in.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by a gun shop challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s authority to shutter businesses determined to be “non-life-sustaining.”
The majority of justices issued the ruling without comment, but three justices authored a dissenting statement concluding the order was “in clear tension with the Second Amendment” and the state constitution.
Although the court held up Mr. Wolf’s order, the governor, a Democrat, later changed his mind and deemed gun shops essential.
Mr. Wolf’s change of heart highlights some of the confusion across the country. Some liberal governors such as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, have said firearm retailers must remain open “for purposes of safety and security.” Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, closed the gun shops in his state.
“I was impressed with Pritzker, but some governors are making just the opposite call,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We are seeing some people who are historically strong on the Second Amendment make just the opposite call.”
Mr. Feinblatt called on governors to keep stores shuttered, saying they don’t provide a public health benefit.
“While there is much we don’t know about COVID-19, this much we know, guns don’t make you safer from it,” he said.
It is not clear when federal courts will get a chance to resolve the issue, which will largely center around the government’s authority to suspend certain constitutional rights during an emergency.
A lawsuit filed by a coalition of gun rights activists last week against New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for closing gun stores was settled Monday when he backed away from his previous order.
“We’re delighted that Gov. Murphy has reversed course on this matter, even if it took a lawsuit to get him to do it,” said Alan M. Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.
“Our lawsuit cut right to the heart of what the Second Amendment is all about, which is personal protection during emergency situations like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation,” he said.