Are Gun Shops Essential? PA Gov Reverses Amid Nationwide Push For Weapons Access

Gun stores in US reporting a surge in sales (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP) (Photo by GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)
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March 25, 2020 2:06 p.m.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D), like many governors nationwide, issued an executive order last week to shutter non-essential businesses across the state to slow the spread of coronavirus.

But by Tuesday, he had quietly amended that order to exempt firearms retailers from the blanket closure.

His reversal came after three state Supreme Court justices, writing for the minority, argued that his decision would completely shut down all gun sales, since law dictates that the transactions must be made in person. That, they argued, would block Pennsylvanians from their constitutional rights.

“Quite simply, if firearm dealers are not able to conduct any business in-person at their licensed premises, then no transfers of firearms can be completed,” wrote Justice David Wecht for the group, pointing out that law requires in-person gun transactions. “This amounts to an absolute and indefinite prohibition upon the acquisition of firearms by the citizens of this Commonwealth — a result in clear tension with the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Citing the allowance for restaurants to continue takeout services while their dine-in operations are shut down, Wecht encouraged Wolf to create an allowance for the part of gun purchasing that must be conducted in person to avoid “an impermissible intrusion upon a fundamental constitutional right.”

Though the state Supreme Court majority actually decided in Wolf’s favor against a firm representing a local gun shop and would-be gun owner, the words of the dissenting justices — notably, all of the Democrats on the bench — seem to have changed the mind of the similarly-ideologically aligned governor.

On Tuesday, he amended his order to give gun retailers the loophole the Democratic justices urged.

In an exception to his closure of all “sporting goods, hobby, and musical instrument stores,” he wrote that “firearms dealers may operate physical businesses on a limited basis to complete only the portions of a sale/transfer that must be conducted under the law.” He added that such transactions must be made by appointment during limited hours to cut down on unsafe congregating, and that the gun dealers must enforce social distancing and thoroughly sanitize the stores between sales.

In an odd-couple pairing, that stance taken by the Democratic justices and enacted by the Democratic governor is exactly what the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade association, has been pushing nationwide.

Since late last week, the group had been in full-fledged pressure mode, trying to convince the White House, Department of Homeland Security, governors, mayors, state legislators and county officials of the essential nature of gun manufacturing and retail, NSSF spokesman Mark Olivia told TPM.

“Our national security mission still continues,” he said, explaining that domestic manufacturers supply most of the “small arms” to the military, and that all but the largest police departments get their weapons cache from local retailers.

But, soldiers and police officers aren’t alone — people out of uniform seem to be clamoring for weapons accessibility amid the pandemic as well.

Per Olivia, the number of background checks conducted since the outbreak began — the FBI-provided data by which the group tracks gun purchases — has been “eye-popping.”

“Last week, we spoke with the FBI,” he said. “The March 16, 2020 volume for background checks is 300 percent the volume on March 16, 2019. Since February 23, background checks have been roughly double every day as the same days last year.”

Olivia added that the group hasn’t yet adjusted those numbers like members usually do at the beginning of each month, winnowing out background checks for things like permits to get a better idea of the numbers attached to gun sales.

Still, he said, “we’ve seen it from our retailers, our distributors: they’re swamped trying to keep up with the demand.”

While getting all Rambo-d up in the face of an unshootable disease may strike some as odd, to Olivia, it makes perfect sense.

“Police departments are having to scale back what they’re doing, city and state officials are turning criminals out of jails and prisons in fear of infection,” he said. “In uncertain times, people are concerned for their safety.”

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