It turns out that the definition of what makes an essential business, well, essential, is malleable. This week, Politico reported that the Trump administration moved to mark gun shops as "essential" businesses — the designation given to places like grocery stores and pharmacies during the coronavirus pandemic — after state leaders began to shutter all but the most crucial businesses in an effort to encourage social distancing. The White House's move reportedly came after after a heavy-handed lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun ownership advocates, which led the federal government to eventually categorize shooting ranges and gun stores as essential.
“Workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges” are now considered “essential” under the category of “law enforcement, public safety, and other first responders,” per guidelines released by the Department of Homeland Security. Reports in recent weeks had showed Americans flocking to buy firearms as coronavirus panic spread.
The National Sports Shooting Foundation (NSSF) pushed White House officials, the Department of Homeland Security, and state officials in mid-March to classify ammunition and gun dealers and firearm manufacturers as essential to public health and safety. “This is exactly when the Second Amendment right is most important, because people are concerned about the safety of their families, their property and their businesses,” Lawrence Keane, the NSSF senior vice president for government and public affairs told The Wall Street Journal.
Not only was the gun lobby's effort to press for a status change successful, but the NRA is additionally now suing states that have said they won’t comply with the order, or will let county officials make the final call as to whether gun-related businesses should be allowed to stay open. On Thursday, the organization sued New York for its decision not to comply with federal regulations, following a similar suit filed against California officials last week, in which they stated that the decision to close gun shops was a “power grab.”
Politico noted that of all the rights that have been threatened by coronavirus — access to abortion care, the ability to vote — the Trump administration "has intervened most directly on the question of gun purchases."
Pro-gun organizations say the Second Amendment enshrines one's constitutional right to protect themself and their family — something they argue is a matter of basic precaution during a global pandemic. After all, pro-gun activists say, people are scared and should be able to defend themselves.
But advocates for responsible gun safety measures disagree. “Keeping gun stores open in this crisis won’t make anyone safer, but it will make the gun lobby richer,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, in a press release, which also accuses organizations like the NRA of “fear mongering” to make people more likely to purchase firearms. The release additionally notes that gun ownership actually makes people less safe and more susceptible to violence. Research has also shown that there is a direct correlation between availability of guns and mass shootings.
"While there is much we don’t know about COVID-19," said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, "this much is clear: Guns don’t make you safer from it. Because despite what the NRA would like you to believe, you can’t shoot a virus.”