A federal judge ordered Massachusetts to allow gun stores to reopen on May 9, in a decision that could pave the way for a future Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of shutdowns.
United States District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock said there was "no justification" for Gov. Charlie Baker's total shutdown of gun stores in the state during the coronavirus pandemic. He granted a preliminary injunction against the executive order and said stores could reopen so long as they operate on an appointment basis and follow strict social distancing rules.
"I have enough information to say, in this very small corner of this emergency, we don’t surrender our constitutional rights," Judge Woodlock said during Thursday's hearing on the case, according to the Boston Globe. "These plaintiffs ... have constitutional rights that deserve respect and vindication. And it becomes necessary for a court to do that."
Baker's office did not return request for comment.
Thursday's decision created a split in federal courts about the legality of gun store shutdowns, which could trigger a Supreme Court review of the policy's constitutionality. While Judge Woodlock ruled the Massachusetts ban was unconstitutional, two federal judges ruled that California localities could shutter gun stores in April. With the cases facing appeals, higher courts may soon be forced to answer the question as well, according to Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston.
"This case may likely get relief at the Supreme Court because of the narrow nature of the injunction," Blackman said.
Gun-rights groups that filed the case against Massachusetts celebrated the ruling, saying it could influence cases they've brought against other jurisdictions over the same issue.
"Constitutional rights are never put on hold because of an emergency, including the outbreak of a virus," Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation—a plaintiff in the Massachusetts case—said in a statement. "Too many elected officials think otherwise, and we’re having to deal with them one lawsuit a time, same as we’re taking on Governor Baker."
Federal coronavirus guidelines have declared gun stores essential businesses, and Gottlieb said the Second Amendment Foundation wants to ensure that states follow those recommendations.
"We can think of nothing that is more essential than exercising a right protected by the Constitution, especially during a declared state of emergency," he said. "We will continue pressing these cases wherever they’ve shown up because we’re not just talking about business here, we’re talking about rights."
Judge Woodlock denied a request by the state to put a stay on the order as it debates whether to appeal. Gun stores will be able to reopen at noon on Saturday.