As businesses all around the country remain closed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, local officials are struggling to determine which establishments should be allowed to stay open. Hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores…but what else?
This past weekend, the Department of Homeland Security put out an advisory saying that gun shops should also be considered “essential services” that are needed by the public, and therefore, they should not be forced to close.
And while the declaration by the DHS stops short of an actual directive, and instead leaves the ultimate decision up to individual states and local municipalities, it does clear up any confusion about what the Federal government expects.
And there was a LOT of confusion. With no Federal standard in place, the status of firearms dealers varied wildly. For example:
- Los Angeles: Sheriff Alex Villanueva twice ordered County guns stores to shut down.
- New Orleans: In early March, Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed a coronavirus order emphasizing her emergency powers allowing her to ban the sale and transportation of firearms.
- Texas: Attorney Ken Paxton took the opposite approach, giving a legal opinion stating that emergency orders closing gun stores are unconstitutional.
On Opposite Sides
Public opinion is also split.
Law Professor Adam Winkler, of the University of California’s Los Angeles School of Law, says, “It’s hard to imagine more compelling circumstances to restrict someone’s fundamental rights than a deadly epidemic.”
The “no compromise” gun rights lobbying group Gun Owners of America says, “The Second Amendment cannot simply be put on hold because of COVID-19.”
Attorney Jonathan Lowry disagrees, saying, “It’s a public health issue, not a Second Amendment issue. The fact is that guns, the nature of guns, require that they be sold with a lot of close interaction. They can’t be sold from vending machines, can’t be sold with curbside pickup.”
Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, says, “We have seen over the past week hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Americans choosing to exercise their right to keep and bear arms to ensure their safety and the safety of loved ones during these uncertain times. Americans must not be denied the ability to exercise that right to lawfully purchase and acquire firearms during times of emergency.”
Gun Sales Soaring
Keane is right about gun sales. Backgrounds checks, an accurate yardstick by which to measure firearm sales, indicate people are purchasing firearms at record rates. Because it is an election year, background checks were already up in January and February, but with the coronavirus pandemic creating even more uncertainty, they are positively skyrocketing.
Since February 23, each day’s volume is roughly double what it was in 2019. In fact, on March 16th, background checks were up 300%.
What Critics are Saying
There are some who don’t see how having a gun can help during a public health crisis. Scott Martelle of The Los Angeles Times, writes, “Unless you plan on shooting those little coronaviruses one by one, no, gun shops are not providing an essential service during a pandemic. They are profiting from the marketing of fear — get armed now before the desperate hordes invade your neighborhood in search of toilet paper!”
Others don’t see restricting gun sales as an infringement of citizens’ Second Amendment rights, saying that it is a necessary measure to contain the virus. “The Second Amendment limits a state’s ability to impose special restrictions that apply only to gun dealers…if the governor of a state issues a broad order closing a state’s nonessential businesses, and that order does not single out gun shops for inferior treatment, gun stores typically should be bound by that order,” writes Ian Millhiser of Vox.
What Gun Owners and Supporters are Saying
But Scott Martelle is missing the point and being purposefully ridiculous to confuse the issue. Obviously, citizens don’t need guns to protect themselves from the virus. But unfortunately, the need for protection from other people might become a different matter altogether.
John R. Lott Jr. of National Review explains, “Law-abiding citizens want the right to buy a gun, especially in the midst of a pandemic. … If shortages become more severe or if lots of police fall ill, chaos may very well ensue. People would rather be safe than sorry.”
In other words, if this pandemic drags on or if some areas become especially hard-hit, there might be some degree of civil unrest. Martelle doesn’t grasp that the ultimate responsibility for self-protection falls to the individual.
And as far as the Second Amendment is concerned, Ian Millhiser doesn’t grasp that the logical consequence of barring gun sales is an infringement of those citizens’ Constitutional RIGHT to bear arms. It’s impossible to legally own a gun if you can’t buy one.
As Alan Gotlieb writes in Washington Free Beacon, “Those who think suspending a constitutional right is acceptable because a virus is a health threat are truly mixing the proverbial apples and oranges to suit their own agendas…citizens must be allowed to exercise their rights, especially during a national emergency.“
Another consideration is that when people who want to buy a gun cannot do so legitimately, they will go outside normal channels. Federally-licensed firearms dealers are required by law to perform background checks on all potential customers.
But using websites or private sellers circumvents those safeguards. This makes it harder to ensure that prohibited individuals don’t possess guns. It also makes it more difficult to track weapons that may have been used to commit crimes.
The final decision on whether or not to allow gun stores to stay open will ultimately be made by individual states, counties, and cities. But now that the Federal recommendations have been clarified, local governments would be prudent to keep them open.
Because they have been deemed “essential”, shuttered gun shops ould have legal grounds to bring lawsuits and seek damages. This has already happened in New Jersey. A number of plaintiffs, including the New Jersey Second Amendment Society sued Governor Phil Murphy for closing gun stores and halting background checks.
In part, the suit reads, “The plaintiffs bringing this action do not mean to minimize the severity or urgency of the coronavirus pandemic. However, this emergency (like any other emergency) has its constitutional limits. It would not justify a prior restraint on speech, nor a suspension of the right to vote. Just the same, it does not justify a ban on obtaining guns and ammunition.”
On Monday, Governor Murphy lifted the ban.