OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency stay-home order didn’t deem firearms dealers essential and necessary to stay open, like grocery stores and pharmacies, to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
That isn’t stopping Tiffany Teasdale, owner of Lynnwood Gun.
“We don’t have anything in writing that says we need to stay closed,” Teasdale said. “And I don’t know anything about what the governor has said.”
Teasdale doesn’t appear to be the only firearms dealer defying Inslee’s emergency order. Gun store owners have been communicating via email, she said, and most are staying open.
In Bellevue, Wade’s Eastside Guns posted a statement on the store’s website explaining why Wade’s is still open: “Your right to the protection of yourself, your family and others is an essential need and a constitutional right!”
The defiance is the latest escalation between gun-rights advocates and a state that has — to their consternation — steadily moved toward implementing more firearms restrictions. After Washington voters in 2018 approved a sweeping package of gun restrictions with Initiative 1639, many law-enforcement officials said they would not enforce it due to constitutional concerns.
The clash comes as dozens of Republican state lawmakers and more than a dozen local law enforcement officials — including Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney — have asked Inslee to designate gun stores “essential.”
Closing such businesses “threatens the continued operations” of law enforcement because some agencies depend on local dealers for ammunition and firearms, according to the letter agencies sent to Inslee.
Teasdale pointed to recent nonbinding guidance from President Donald Trump that listed firearms dealers among essential businesses. She considers self-defense part of that.
The situation could get more contentious. The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) is prepared to file suit against Inslee if gun stores are forced to close, according to the organization’s founder, Alan Gottlieb.
“Gun stores are still open and the state is doing the background check for sales and transfers,” wrote Gottlieb. “As soon as it is ripe we will file. Plaintiffs and complaint are ready!”
In a recent news release, SAF claimed credit for the governor of New Jersey’s declaration that the state’s firearm stores should stay open after the organization filed a legal challenge.
The questions about constitutionality and gun rights come as Washington state officials use emergency powers not seen in modern times, if ever.
The governor has closed schools, banned gatherings and shuttered businesses to slow the spread of the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2. As of 11:59 p.m. March 31, Washington had 5,984 cases and 247 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. (The DOH data regarding new COVID-19 cases and deaths hasn’t been updating regularly.)
Everett Billingslea, general counsel for former Gov. Gary Locke, said officials using emergency powers must weigh them against constitutional rights.
The question over whether gun stores can be ordered to close is not unlike questions about the ban on gatherings, said Billingslea.
But temporarily closing stores is different than outlawing the possession of firearms, he said, adding, “If they came and took all the guns away, that’s a totally different issue.”
The state constitution has even stronger provisions regarding guns than the U.S. Constitution, according to Hugh Spitzer, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law.
But state lawmakers also have a long history of regulating firearms, he said, dating back to before Washington was even a state.
“Our court has always allowed reasonable restrictions on firearms in the interest of public health and safety,” he said, adding later: “I don’t think our courts are going to second-guess the governor’s decision on this.”
Spitzer said he didn’t think the outcome would be different in federal court.
Still, deciding whether a gun shop is “essential” is subjective, said Spitzer. Governors elsewhere have declared firearms dealers essential in their emergency orders.
A spokeswoman for Inslee’s office this week confirmed the stores are considered nonessential under Inslee’s order.
“My understanding is that gun shops are not considered essential and are included in the temporary closure of nonessential businesses,” wrote Tara Lee.
Teasdale says she hasn’t been contacted by the state, or local law enforcement, ordering her to close, and Lynnwood police are processing the background-check requests she sends over.
In a time of fear over the global pandemic, Teasdale said business at her store is brisk.
“We went from 25 guns being a good days for sales, to 150 guns on average,” she said.
Many recent customers have been first-time gun buyers, and many of those are of Asian descent, Teasdale said — worried about backlash from those who blame Chinese people for the spread of the virus.
Teasdale said her store is taking social-distancing measures, asking people to stand 6 feet apart and allowing only three customers in the store at a time.
Employees are are using sanitizer and wiping down surfaces, she said, “to go the extra mile to make sure our customers are safe.”
Fortney, the Snohomish County sheriff, said he signed the letter to Inslee primarily because of questions about U.S. constitutional rights.
But Fortney said he would close businesses violating the order if necessary, adding, “I’m going to comply with what the governor says.”