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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidance that deems firearms stores essential services, but state and local governments have drawn different conclusions on whether gun stores should remain open.
Toilet paper isn’t the only thing Americans are stocking up on as they hunker down under stay-at-home orders.
Gun sales also skyrocketed in March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States. But residents’ ability to purchase firearms depends on whether their state or local government has classified gun stores as essential businesses.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidance over the weekend that deems employees of firearms and ammunition manufacturers, firearms distributors and retailers, and shooting ranges as essential critical infrastructure workers. But the guidance is non-binding, and state and local governments have diverged in their interpretations.
Massachusetts and New York are the latest states to come under fire from gun rights supporters, who say ordering gun stores to close violates residents’ Second Amendment rights under the Constitution.
The National Rifle Association on Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order, which excluded gun stores from a list of essential businesses that are allowed to stay open during the outbreak. Because gun stores have had to close to comply with the order, the NRA said the Democratic governor's order effectively "cut off the only way of legally purchasing firearms in the state."
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, on Tuesday updated the state's list of essential businesses that could remain open, to include firearms manufacturers, retailers, importers and shooting ranges. A revised order issued a short time later then removed gun stores and ranges from the list. The governor’s office did not return a request for comment about the decision.
Gun control advocate Rina Schneur of the Massachusetts chapter of Moms Demand Action, told MassLive that gun sales in the state could contribute to an increase in accidental shootings at a time when people are forced to stay home.
“They may make some of the gun lobby richer, but it certainly will not make us safer, and it will make us less safe," she said.
But Second Amendment advocates say they will push to have the designation changed.
“At the very fundamental level it is a constitutional issue,” said Mark Oliva, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which has been tracking state action on the issue. “You have a right to keep and bear arms… You cannot keep and bear arms if you don’t have the ability to purchase a firearm.”
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) conducted 3.7 million checks for firearms purchases in March, the highest monthly number recorded since its inception in 1998. The month with the next highest number of checks was 3.3 million conducted in December 2015. While not each background check corresponds with a firearms purchase, the system is widely regarded as a barometer for firearms purchases, which are not tracked nationwide.
Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting estimates that of the 3.7 million background checks, about 2.5 million translate to actual firearms purchases. Based on the FBI data, the NSSF estimates 2.3 million firearms were purchased in March.
Jails are releasing inmates to lessen the spread of coronavirus within their walls, meanwhile police departments are coping with officers out sick from the virus. While initial reports indicate crime has dropped amid the pandemic, Oliva said the recent rise in gun sales shows Americans are concerned about their ability to protect themselves.
“These are times of uncertainty,” he said. “People don’t know what the future is going to hold here.”
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, left the decision about whether gun stores are essential services up to county leaders. The NRA, Second Amendment Foundation and other gun rights groups and firearms stores sued numerous state and local leaders in the Los Angeles area this week over Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s initial decision to close gun stores in the region. Villanueva reversed his decision this week following the issuance of the DHS guidance.
In northern California, six counties in the San Francisco area this week extended stay-at-home orders through May 3 that designate gun stores as non-essential businesses that need to be closed. A spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff said while gun stores cannot make storefront sales, they are allowed to deliver inventory to customers at their homes so long as they are in compliance with other applicable laws.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia previously defended the decision to the Mercury News, calling it “a public safety issue.”
“Law enforcement is well prepared to handle any issues. People don’t need to stock up on guns,” he said.
Gun control advocates emphasize that the federal is non-binding, saying state and local government leaders should base their decisions on business closures on the advice of public health officials, not industry groups.
“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,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, 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.”
But several states, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have opted to reclassify gun stores as essential businesses after initially ordering them closed specifically because of the federal guidance.
“It wouldn’t be my definition, but that’s the definition at the federal level and I didn’t get a vote on that,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat.
Elsewhere, states have allowed gun stores to remain open but have closed shooting ranges. That has also concerned gun rights activists, who say that closures will limit new gun owners’ ability to safely practice using their firearms.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam allowed gun stores to remain open but included shooting ranges among the recreational facilities that would be closed under his stay-at-home order as part of social distancing measures to keep people from close contact with each other.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League asked the Democratic governor this week to make an exemption to allow ranges to remain open so long as they follow social distancing guidance.
“Notably, those who have been indifferent or even hostile to firearm rights have rushed to gun stores to buy the guns they never considered buying before, as COVID-19 disrupts normal governmental functions,” the VCDL wrote in a letter to Northam. “These new gun owners want to learn quickly about basic gun operation and safety and need access to ranges.”
On Wednesday, the VCDL board of directors sent a message to members indicating they intended to move forward with a lawsuit challenging the designation.
This article was updated since it was first published to include information about the NRA's New York lawsuit.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.