Groceries. Gasoline. Medical care. Marijuana, in some places. All have been designated essential to society in more than a dozen states that have ordered many other businesses to close.
But what about guns?
Firearm and ammunition sales have soared in recent weeks, so clearly, some Americans want them. A gun industry association is lobbying federal and state governments to categorize firearm manufacturers and dealers as critical infrastructure, complaining that FBI background checks are slowing things down as more people try to purchase weapons.
But officials have been split over whether gun stores and ammunition dealers can remain open alongside pharmacies, gas stations and laundromats, leading to confusion and legal challenges as at least 19 states have issued some form of stay-at-home orders. In Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, gun stores have been deemed essential. In New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, they have not.
In Los Angeles, where long lines of customers have been stretching out the door of some gun shops over the past few weeks, the county sheriff ordered his deputies to make sure they were closed after 10 million residents were ordered to stay at home starting last weekend. But on Tuesday, after the county’s top lawyer said the shops could stay open, the sheriff reversed his decision.
The patchwork of policies and shifting interpretations have highlighted the question of what is truly an essential business during the pandemic, with lobbyists and guns rights advocates arguing that even a public health emergency shouldn’t restrict the 2nd Amendment.
“People want to exercise their God-given right to bear arms and protect their families,” said Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry association lobbying for special protection for dealers and manufacturers.
But advocates for stricter gun safety measures argue that a run on gun stores could itself pose a public health concern if new buyers aren’t trained properly, new guns aren’t stored safely and background checks aren’t completed.
“Guns will not make Americans safer in the face of COVID-19,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Underscoring the concerns, several recent gun-related incidents have been linked to fears surrounding the pandemic.
Police in Alpharetta, Georgia, on Sunday arrested a man they accused of pointing a gun at two women wearing medical masks and gloves because he feared he might contract the coronavirus. A man in New Mexico was charged last week with the accidental shooting death of his 13-year-old cousin with a gun he told police he was carrying “for protection” amid the outbreak. And in Maine, a man with a felony conviction who claimed he needed guns to protect himself during the outbreak was charged with illegally possessing a firearm.
As some states have moved to close gun shops alongside other businesses, they have faced quick legal challenges.
In Pennsylvania, gun rights advocates filed lawsuits to block Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that labeled gun stores as nonessential. Although a divided state Supreme Court dismissed the legal challenge, the governor on Tuesday allowed gun shops to reopen with protocols on social distancing.
On Monday, a federal lawsuit in New Jersey challenged Gov. Phil Murphy’s order for gun stores to close, which also prompted the State Police to shut down the state’s background check website.
Demand for firearms has been growing throughout the coronavirus outbreak, with widespread reports of firearms and survival gear flying off the shelves, including in California, New York, Washington state, Alabama and Ohio. Data from the FBI show a sizable increase in background checks for gun purchases since the start of the year, though other factors, such as the national political campaign and gun control efforts by some state legislatures might have also played a role.
But as states began preparing for lockdowns on March 16, criminal background checks soared 300% compared with the same date in 2019, according to federal data shared with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Since late February, roughly twice as many background checks have been conducted as during the same period last year, the group said.
The FBI would not comment on those figures, but said in a statement that the background check system remained fully operational and asked for the public’s patience “during this period of national emergency.”
When Illinois issued an order on March 20 to close essential businesses, it included gun shops among the exemptions allowed to stay open. Since then, Second Amendment Sports, a gun shop and shooting range in McHenry, Illinois, has been busy, said the store’s owner, Bert Irslinger Jr., who called sales over the past 10 days “the best we’ve ever had.”
Registration for shooting courses has also been high, he said. “We saw classes filling up fast, so we offered other dates and times so we could keep classes small” to follow social distancing guidelines, Irslinger said. “We’re no different than any other industry where practice makes perfect.”