New Jersey Backs Down on Gun-Store Closures

Governor lifts ban after DHS labels gun businesses 'essential'

(Customers stand six feet apart while waiting in line to buy guns and ammo / Stephen Gutowski)
March 30, 2020

New Jersey gun stores will reopen after Democrat governor Phil Murphy abandoned an attempted statewide shutdown stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

On Monday, Murphy said the stores will be able to operate "by appointment only and under limited hours" during the duration of his emergency shutdown order. The move came two days after the federal government updated its essential business guidance to include gun stores, ranges, and manufacturers. Murphy said he disagreed with the nonbinding guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security but would follow its prescriptions.

"In accordance with the guidance released over the weekend by the federal Department of Homeland Security, we will allow firearms retailers to operate," Murphy said during a Monday press conference. "It wouldn’t have been my definition, but that’s the definition at the federal level, and I didn’t get a vote on that."

Murphy's initial order closed not only businesses, but the state's background check system, making it effectively impossible to purchase legal firearms in the state. His reversal may signal an end to the debate over whether gun stores should be considered "essential" businesses as states enact stay-at-home orders to combat the pandemic. Pennsylvania and Delaware have also reversed bans. Texas told cities and counties within the state on Friday that gun stores are "essential" and cannot be closed.

Gun-rights groups praised the Trump administration for updating their guidance and influencing Governor Murphy.

"New Jersey's decision to recognize gun stores as 'essential' is all thanks to President Trump and the DHS's decision to declare firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges as critical infrastructure to remain open during any state shutdown," Lars Dalseide, a National Rifle Association spokesman, told the Washington Free Beacon.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a gun industry trade group that lobbied for DHS to add gun companies to the "essential" list, said it pursued the federal change in an effort to prevent such policies from being enacted.

"This underscores the importance of why we worked with the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to get firearms businesses listed as essential critical infrastructure," Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the group, told the Free Beacon. "This designation is crucial to allowing for commerce in firearms and the ability of Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights."

The group said the industry is willing to abide by social distancing guidelines in an effort to keep customers safe, but believes total shutdowns directly violate Americans' constitutional rights.

"Your ability to exercise your Second Amendment rights begins with your ability to legally obtain a firearm," Oliva said. "If you are denied access to the gun counter and you are denied access to running a state-required, a federally required background check to legally purchase a gun, you are being denied your rights. And that's what Governor Murphy was doing."

Gun-rights groups have also taken legal action against states and localities that have shuttered stores in reaction to coronavirus. The NRA, Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), and Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) all filed suits against New Jersey over the order.

Adam Kraut, director of legal strategy for FPC, said the group was "pleased" that Murphy "begrudgingly reversed his decision." Alan Gottlieb, SAF founder, said his group was "delighted" with the new policy.

"Our lawsuit cut right to the heart of what the Second Amendment is all about, which is personal protection during emergency situations like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the nation," he said in a statement. "Regardless what some politicians might think, the Second Amendment is not subject to emergency orders, same as the First, Fourth, Fifth or other constitutional protections."

While the groups said the governor's reversal is likely to be enough to end their lawsuits against the state, the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs told Politico it is still pursuing its suit in an attempt to set a precedent that would "[prevent] this from ever happening again."

Kraut said FPC and other gun-rights organizations would monitor developments in New Jersey as they pursue legal action in other states, including North Carolina and California.

"The governor has made his disdain for an enumerated constitutional right well known, and it is clear he will not show the Second Amendment the respect it is due unless forced to do so," he told the Free Beacon. "FPC and our friends at other organizations will continue to take legal action as necessary to protect the People’s right to keep and bear arms when modern day Kings believe they can relegate the Second Amendment to the pages of history.

"This case is not over, but it's a great start."