L.A., North Carolina Sheriffs Back Off Gun Shutdowns

March 31, 2020

Sheriffs in California and North Carolina reversed course Monday and lifted emergency policies that prevented people from purchasing firearms.

Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva (D.) announced he would allow gun dealers to reopen. Wake County, North Carolina, sheriff Gerald Baker (D.) reached an agreement to reopen the pistol purchase permit process. Second Amendment activists had launched lawsuits against both sheriffs over their attempts to prevent firearm purchases during the national coronavirus outbreak.

Gun-rights activists and retailers have been at the forefront of several legal battles as they seek to keep stores open while government agencies temporarily curtail civil liberties to fight the coronavirus. While most of the lawsuits are still making their way through the courts, state and local officials have walked back shutdown attempts. In March, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey all reopened gun stores in a limited capacity after attempting to implement statewide shutdowns.

The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) led a coalition of activists, including the California Gun Rights Foundation, National Rifle Association, and Firearms Policy Coalition, to file lawsuits across California. SAF founder Alan Gottlieb said the aggressive legal strategy forced the hands of local officials.

"Our lawsuits had a direct impact on their reversals," Gottlieb told the Washington Free Beacon. "This is about winning firearms freedom one lawsuit at a time."

Gun-rights activists have used a combination of lawsuits and lobbying to convince most jurisdictions to preserve gun sales during the pandemic. Advocates successfully petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to include the industry in the federal "essential" business guidelines issued to state and local governments. Sheriff Villanueva cited those recommendations when he announced he would reopen gun stores.

"Although explicitly advisory in nature, nonetheless the federal memorandum is persuasive given its national scope," Villanueva said of the updated DHS guidance. "Based on this further input from the federal government, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will not order or recommend closure of businesses that sell or repair firearms or sell ammunition."

While gun-rights groups have praised the updated federal guidance and celebrated the reopening of gun stores, gun-control groups have criticized both developments.

"During this crisis, we should be focused on the health and safety of all Americans—not the bottom line of the gun industry," Adam Skaggs, Giffords Law Center chief counsel, said in a statement. "Public health experts are the ones best positioned to make vital choices about what businesses should remain open for our nation's well being. The Administration's guidance should reflect that, without limiting the options for local and state officials to take necessary actions that can limit the spread of the coronavirus and save lives."

The spread of the coronavirus—and corresponding lockdown orders—has left little time for Second Amendment groups to celebrate policy or legal victories. The Virginia Citizens Defense League threatened to sue Governor Ralph Northam (D.) on Friday if he does not reverse a shutdown of indoor gun ranges. The NRA, SAF, and Firearms Policy Coalition filed a new federal case against a group of Northern California officials on Tuesday over their shutdowns.

"Local governments aren't promoting safety or 'common sense' by targeting gun stores for closure; the closures only serve to disarm law-abiding families while criminals roam free," Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. "Because these closures violate our Second Amendment rights when we need them most, the National Rifle Association continues to fight such infringements in court alongside fellow Second Amendment groups."