The National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit against New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D.) on Thursday night in an effort to reopen gun stores closed by the emergency coronavirus shutdown.
Cuomo ordered all "nonessential" businesses to cease "in-office personnel functions" on March 22. He did not label gun businesses as "essential." Since federally licensed gun dealers are required by law to conduct in-person background checks for each sale, the order effectively closed gun stores in the state and cut off most legal gun sales. The NRA said the governor's shutdown order is an "assault" on "Second Amendment freedoms."
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"There isn't a single person who has ever used a gun for self-defense who would consider it nonessential," Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, said in a statement. "This is clearly another assault by Gov. Cuomo on the NRA, on the rights of New Yorkers to defend themselves and their families, and on our Second Amendment freedoms. The NRA will continue to fight all such attacks until Gov. Cuomo recognizes that constitutional rights are for every New Yorker and every American—and not just for politicians and their privileged friends."
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment on the case. New York attorney general Letitia James (D.) vowed to fight the NRA in court.
"Everyone—including the NRA—must follow the law and all executive orders of New York," James said in a statement. "We will aggressively defend the state against yet another legal assault by the NRA."
The suit is the latest legal battle over gun-business shutdowns that are taking place across the country. The outcome of the suit could affect how state and local officials determine which businesses can remain open amid mass closures aimed at slowing the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Whether or not the threat of the virus can justify a total moratorium on legal gun purchases, even temporarily, or if gun businesses must be allowed to operate at least on a limited basis, may ultimately be decided by the courts.
Gun-rights activists and industry representatives have been largely successful in convincing state officials to allow gun stores to remain open as demand exploded. Days after Cuomo's shutdown order, the Department of Homeland Security labeled gun businesses "essential" in coronavirus guidelines. The nonbinding federal recommendations led New Jersey governor Phil Murphy (D.) and Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva (D.) to reverse decisions to close gun stores. The only governor to further crack down on the industry in the wake of the DHS announcement has been Charlie Baker (R.) of Massachusetts, leading gun-rights groups to threaten legal action.
Gun-rights activists have faced mixed results in court so far. On Tuesday, a federal judge in California allowed Ventura County to move forward with gun-store shutdowns. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court similarly refused to block Gov. Tom Wolf (D.) from closing stores, though the governor later amended his order to open shops. A North Carolina judge ordered Wake County sheriff Gerald Baker (D.) to abide by an agreement to reopen the pistol-purchase permit process in his jurisdiction.
The NRA has already launched several legal battles against the Cuomo administration. The group is locked in litigation with the state over an attempt by the governor to pressure financial institutions to cut ties with the NRA. The state is also involved in an ongoing investigation into accusations of the group's financial impropriety.
William A. Brewer III, counsel for the NRA, said the lawsuit was necessary because the shutdown of gun purchases violated the rights of New Yorkers. He accused Cuomo of using the threat of the virus as a political ploy.
"The right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution, in part, to give Americans the ability to defend themselves and their families," Brewer said in a statement. "The current public health emergency does not justify the complete elimination of this right, especially during a time when many New Yorkers have valid concerns about their physical safety and welfare. Our client believes that Gov. Cuomo is again weaponizing the power of his office—to prevent gun owners from exercising the rights to which they are entitled."