On the afternoon of March 24, two Delray Beach, Fla., code enforcement officials walked into Wex Gunworks and told owner Brandon Wexler that he had to shut down over concerns about coronavirus. Wexler's mind immediately went to the customers who had begun flooding his shop as the deadly virus spread. Florida law requires stores to hold guns purchased by residents without gun-carry permits for at least five days. Wexler had more than 500 people waiting on their purchases at the time.
"You're violating their rights. They can't protect their families, their property. And God forbid if this thing turned sideways," Wexler said. "I need to help these people. I went into fireman mode."
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In addition to running the gun shop, Wexler is a Palm Beach County firefighter. The 13-year department veteran had already taken steps to keep his customers safe from the virus by canceling classes and enforcing social distancing. He bristled at the notion that the store had to shutter completely. Wexler sees no difference between his job as a first responder and his role as a shop owner. Both are more essential than ever in times of crisis.
"Forget me being a business owner, I'm more concerned about my customers," he said. "This is stupid. They are violating our constitutional rights."
After the March visit, Wexler reached out to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), which represents firearms manufacturers and retailers, for help as he prepared a lawsuit. Mark Oliva, an NSSF spokesman, said the organization is working with gun stores across the country facing similar fights.
"It comes down to this: You don't have the ability to exercise your fundamental Second Amendment rights unless you have the ability to buy a gun. It all starts at the gun counter," Oliva told the Washington Free Beacon. "If you don't have the ability to buy that gun, you can't exercise your right to keep and bear arms."
Delray Beach did not respond to a request for comment.
Most states and localities have allowed gun stores to operate as "essential" businesses during the shutdowns, echoing federal guidelines released in March. But a handful of areas have demanded the stores close. Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and New Mexico have become legal battlegrounds for retailers and gun-rights groups alike. The outcomes of those fights will set precedents on how to balance constitutionally protected rights and state emergency powers.
"Right now, I think we're looking at 45 states are open and able to do business," Oliva said. "Five states are giving us issues, and we're working to get those figured out. But even states that you thought would be easy, like Texas, have been problems. "
Travis County, which includes Austin, did not exempt gun stores from its March shutdown order. Michael Cargill, owner of Central Texas Gun Works, has refused to close his doors to customers regardless of the order.
"What we're saying is that we're not going to close down at all," he told the Free Beacon. "I've had people call me and threaten to contact the city and the county and let them know that we're not closing and I said, ‘Fine, feel free to call because we're not going to close because we are an essential business.' People need food, they need water, they need medicine, they need medical care, and they also need firearms for personal protection."
The store has not yet received a visit from local authorities. Travis County did not respond to a request for comment about whether the order applies to gun stores.
Cargill said he did not believe local authorities had the power to close his gun store.
"Your cities, your counties, your municipalities do not have the authority to regulate the use or sale of firearms. That is reserved for the state legislature," he said. "We have laws on the books right now to protect our gun rights. These cities cannot implement any gun laws at all that are stricter than the state law. When it comes to firearms, I don't recognize that ability."
Cargill's opinion has received backing from the state's highest law enforcement official. Following inquiries from lawmakers about the status of firearms retailers, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (R.) released a legal opinion telling localities that they "may not regulate or restrict the sale of firearms."
Wex Gunworks achieved a similar victory. Code enforcement officials returned to the shop on March 25 to tell managers that the city had changed its policy.
"Code enforcement came in. I wasn't there, I was on duty [at the fire station]," Wexler said. "And they said, ‘Okay, you guys are good. You're essential,' with their tail between their legs. So, it was resolved quickly."
Bob's Little Sport Shop in Glassboro, N.J., questioned the wisdom and legality of being ordered to shut down by Gov. Phil Murphy (D.).
"I don't understand how they can judge the liquor store an essential business, but your Second Amendment isn't essential," Wayne Viden, vice president of the store, told the Free Beacon. "What other recourse do you have to protect yourself?"
The store wanted to keep its doors open, but Murphy's order extended beyond businesses: He shut down the state's background check system as well. The move prevented any New Jersey resident from purchasing a legal firearm. The store supported three generations of the Viden family, all of whom were hurt by the shutdown order.
"His agenda and the agenda of a majority of the New Jersey Democrats is that they don't want our stores to be open," Viden said. "So, if this cripples or destroys our stores, they're fine with it. They don't really care about families that rely on this type of business."
Gun-store owners said they appreciated the severity of the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 60,000 Americans. Viden's store has now reopened on an appointment-only basis after Murphy backed away from his shutdown.
"We get the dangers of it," Viden said. "My parents live above our store. My father is 78. My mother is 75. They're the ones who are the most in danger."
All three stores have implemented enhanced cleaning and social distancing practices in an effort to keep customers as safe as possible.
"We are obviously practicing social distancing," Wexler said. "We're decontaminating. We have Xs in the store. No more than six people. We're wearing gloves. We have masks. We're decontaminating the place. Everything—the doors, the handles, the computer keyboards, the cabinets, the pens. Everything."
Gun sales hit a record high in March as customers flocked to stores, but those sales provide low-margins for most firearms businesses. Training classes and other courses—the types of activities they have eliminated to keep customers safe—are the real money-maker. The owners who spoke to the Free Beacon said their efforts to stay open during the pandemic are driven less by profit and more by principle.
"This is not a financial decision at all because we don't make our money on selling guns," Cargill said. "We make our money on training and classes. I'm actually not able to do those classes now because I can't have that many people in a class. We've had to postpone them."
"I saw the wave of fear or panic that people needed to protect their person, property, and family," Wexler said. "I have a huge responsibility. I need to help the people protecting their families."
He said that whatever happened, he was going to find a way to get guns to the customers—especially first-time gun owners—who had passed a background check and bought them.
"It's about our constitutional right," Wexler said. "It's about being an American."