Can gun stores open during coronavirus?

Some states have declared gun and ammunition shops nonessential, effectively ordering the businesses to close

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Gun rights groups and store owners in states across the country are suing to have gun businesses classified as “essential” – arguing first and foremost that the mandatory new coronavirus-related closure is unconstitutional.

Some states have declared gun and ammunition shops nonessential, effectively ordering the businesses to close until the COVID-19 outbreak was under control.

“Our rights don’t end during a pandemic.” 

- National Shooting Sports Foundation spokesman Mark Oliva

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Just Friday afternoon, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the local government could not legally restrict the “sale, possession and ownership of firearms” saying it’s “strictly prohibited under Texas Law.”

In Pennsylvania, Civil Rights Defense Firm and the Firearms Policy Coalition, among others, took matters into their own hands – filing a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court earlier this month. Although the suit was ultimately dismissed, Gov. Tom Wolf allowed gun stores to be re-opened on March 24, according to a report by GoErie.com.

But other officials, such as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, have been adamantly opposed to reopening gun shops.

“A safer society for my taste has fewer guns and not more guns,” Murphy said at a Wednesday press conference, according to NJ.com. “The guns that do exist are at the hands of the right people, particularly trained members of law enforcement."

People wait in line to enter a gun store in Culver City, Calif., March 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

In a number of other U.S. cities, including New Orleans, the mayor has issued an emergency proclamation that declares the authority to restrict sales of firearms and ammunition.

That has led to confusion in California, where for the second time this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva ordered gun shops to close, challenging a finding by the legal counsel for the nation's most populous county that the stores are essential businesses.

Many gun-rights advocates are concerned about an erosion of Second Amendment rights – and rightfully so, said Dallas, Texas-based attorney and constitutional law expert Nick Oberheiden.

A woman, right, fills out legal forms to buy a handgun as shop worker Missy Morosky fills out the vendors' parts after Dukes Sport Shop reopened, on March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

“Is a store closing by local, state or federal orders – is this something that implicates the fundamental right, and, here, the Second Amendment? The answer is clearly yes,” he told FOX Business on Friday.

However, the short-term nature of the conditions – amid a public health emergency, nonetheless -- might make the order for gun shops to close justifiable for some and too temporary for many to be able to successfully argue in a court, he said.

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“If these restrictions are really determined to be… within a defined period, I don't see this being something that any court would overrule,” he said. Judges would also potentially say, “’We need to defer to local government or to the states to try and let them decide whether there is a public health emergency.’ Assuming there is then this restriction, which is temporary in nature, is constitutional.”

Gun store patrons wait in line on March 15, 2020, in Burbank, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Oberheiden noted that in most cases gun and ammo stores are closed based on general guidelines and restrictions placed on a plethora of stores – not solely those that sell firearms.

“It's not designed to discriminate against gun owners or owners of gun stores,” he said. “You do infringe the right of the Second Amendment, but there is a legitimate justification why on a temporary basis that is permissible and in the public interest to have those stores closed just like any other legitimate business across town.”

Meanwhile, Americans are buying firearms in record numbers to try to ensure their safety.

Signs point out quantity limits on certain types of ammunition after Dukes Sport Shop reopened, on March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

As firearm sales have skyrocketed, so have gun background checks, which were up 300 percent on March 16 compared with the same date a year ago, according to federal data shared with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun-makers.

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NSSF spokesperson Mark Oliva told FOX Business the group has been working with the federal government to ensure the firearm industry is included in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency list of “critical infrastructure.”

“We are anticipating an update to this list will include firearm manufacturers, distributors, retailers and ranges because of the essential role they provide for national security, public safety and the exercise of Second Amendment rights that allow for self-protection,” Oliva said Friday in an email. “At the same time, law-abiding Americans have the God-given right to keep and bear arms, protected by the Second Amendment.”

An employee stands at the entrance to a gun shop on March 24, 2020, in Culver City, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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He emphasized that now, during a time of extreme uncertainty, “Americans want to know they can provide for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones.”

“Our rights don’t end during a pandemic,” he said. “In fact, the need for responsible and law-abiding adults to exercise their rights is magnified.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.