A coalition of gun owner groups filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the Los Angeles County sheriff, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state and county health officials seeking to block the closure of gun shops during the coronavirus shutdown.

Sheriff Alex Villaneuva closed gun stores in L.A. County Thursday to everyone except police and licensed security company employees after the governor deemed that firearms sellers are considered nonessential businesses during California’s shutdown of commerce in an effort to limit and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Villanueva took the action after county lawyers early this week had stalled an effort to close the gun stores. Then Newsom gave the OK for Villaneuva to decide what happened to local gun stores in the county during the ordered statewide stay-at-home order.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles on Friday seeking declaratory relief, the gun owner groups characterized the closure as a clear violation of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

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“California’s attack on fundamental rights in times of emergency must be stopped in its tracks,” said Alan Gottlieb, executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation. The groups accused Newsom and the sheriff of using the ongoing crisis to promote a gun control agenda.

“California’s state and local governments cannot simply suspend the Constitution,” Firearms Policy Coalition President Brandon Combs said.

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The lawsuit charges that California is closing the only lawful means to buy firearms and therefore “shutters the Constitutional right to bear arms.” “Such a de facto prohibition on the right to keep and bear arms is categorically unconstitutional under the 2nd Amendment.” The novel coronavirus pandemic, the attorneys for the group argue, is a situation that requires people to maintain safety, and guns and ammunition are the “most essential business function possible” at such a time.

The suit’s plaintiffs include the owners of Gun World in Burbank and it also names both the state and Los Angeles County public health officer who created the state and county orders. It also challenges the state action under the 14th Amendment, which bars states from making or enforcing any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of citizens. The suit notes the San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore deemed firearms stores “a valuable public service” and warned people would turn to the black market if they closed.

Villanueva, a gun owner, in announcing his move to close gun stores to the general public but not to police and security guards, said he supports the 2nd Amendment but added that given the spread of the coronavirus in Los Angeles County, only essential businesses should be open.

“It’s not an issue of banning the sales of guns, which the 2nd Amendment is about,” he said. The sheriff said long lines and crowds at firearms stores went against the efforts to maintain social distancing, and that new guns on hand when people were staying inside for lengthy periods could lead to trouble. But the sheriff said the issue would be up to individual police chiefs in L.A. County cities that are outside his patrol territories.

Amid the pandemic, officials have strengthened rules ordering all nonessential businesses to cease in-person operations and close to the public. Exceptions include food and medical services, transportation and social services.

Villanueva sought to implement the closure earlier this week but was told by county lawyers that gun shops could be considered essential under county and state measures to encourage social distancing and cut the spread of the virus. The opinion forced the sheriff to backtrack and suspended the closure. But then Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said sheriffs do have the authority to make such closures. The cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles have also closed their gun stores.

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Gun shops, according to the sheriff, were one of several types of nonessential businesses that continued to be open and garnered complaints. He said those who don’t comply would be cited and could lose their business license.

Some owners had already closed or were scheduling appointments.

Gun sales are surging in many U.S. states, especially in those hit hardest by the coronavirus, such as California. Among the factors fueling the increase are concerns from first-time gun buyers who fear an unraveling of the social order and those who worry that the government might use its emergency powers to restrict gun purchases.

“Twenty-eight years ago, the LAPD had to withdraw their officers to protect their safety,” said California Gun Rights Foundation Chairman Gene Hoffman. “We hope that the stay-home orders will mean that our public servants will not become infected in this pandemic, but the Constitution guarantees that everyone has a right to acquire arms and defend themselves should law enforcement not be able to respond before it’s too late.”

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