Gun-Rights Groups Sue North Carolina, Los Angeles Sheriffs Over Coronavirus Shut Downs

A man reads signs on the entrance to Martin B. Retting gun shop in Culver City, California March 24, 2020. / Getty Images
March 27, 2020

A collection of Second Amendment activists filed a pair of federal lawsuits on Friday targeting sheriffs in California and North Carolina over mandatory coronavirus-related shutdowns of gun stores and permit-purchase systems, respectively.

The suits come in the wake of California governor Gavin Newsom's decision to allow local authorities to close gun stores under his emergency lockdown order. Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva, acting on Newsom's guidance, mandated gun-store closures. A separate suit was filed in North Carolina after Wake County sheriff Gerald Baker (D.) refused to process new pistol-purchase and gun-carry permits starting on Tuesday.

The outcome of the cases will shape how local officials can restrict Americans' access to constitutionally protected gun rights during the emergency response to the novel coronavirus. Gun stores and manufacturers are facing potential shutdowns in a dozen states even as Americans flood stores during the crisis. Gun store and permitting process shutdowns have thwarted buyers in parts of the country, leading gun-rights groups to take legal action.

The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), National Rifle Association, California Gun Rights Foundation (CGF), and Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) filed suit against Villanueva and Newsom in an effort to keep gun stores in one the country's most populous counties open to the public. SAF founder Alan Gottlieb called the shutdowns in Los Angeles County an "attack on fundamental rights." The NRA said California officials were denying people guns at a time they need them most.

"Municipalities and states that target lawful gun stores for closure aren't promoting safety—by weaponizing their politics to disarm you and your loved ones, these shameless partisans are wantonly promoting a gun-control agenda that suffocates your Second Amendment rights when you need them most," Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action said.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department told the Washington Free Beacon it "has not been served with this lawsuit and has no comment at this time."

Villanueva said in a statement on Thursday that gun stores will be able to continue selling firearms to security companies, adding that civilians who had already completed a purchase would be allowed to pick up their firearms. The stores, however, would be closed to the general public. Local officials have argued that gun stores are not "essential" and are thus subject to a statewide lockdown.

"There's nothing essential about being able to purchase a new handgun," Los Angeles city attorney Mike Feuer told the Associated Press. Feuer did not respond to a request for comment.

Adam Kraut, FPC director of legal strategy, said the decision to shutter gun stores makes it effectively impossible to legally purchase guns or ammunition in the county.

"Especially due to the restrictive nature of California's byzantine gun laws that require the use of licensed dealers to buy and transfer both firearms and ammunition, the defendants' orders and actions challenged individually and collectively violate the Constitution and individuals' fundamental rights to keep and bear arms and due process of law," he said. "These irrational and outrageous fiat restrictions cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny and must be enjoined from enforcement."

Kraut said the case against Wake County, N.C., sheriff Baker was equally urgent, arguing that the sheriff's refusal to process new permits to purchase or carry a pistol also makes it impossible for residents to exercise their gun rights.

"Sheriff Baker's unconstitutional actions have and will deprive law-abiding, peaceable individuals the opportunity to obtain handguns, the 'quintessential self-defense weapon' according to the U.S. Supreme Court, in a time where the arms are most needed," he said.

A spokesman for Wake County's Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Baker said in a statement that his decision "does not limit anyone's right to purchase a handgun," but is necessary because of the overwhelming number of people who have applied to purchase pistols as coronavirus has spread.

"Over the past several weeks, our staff has been inundated with high volumes of permit applications that have made it impossible to process by law," he said. "This decision is not a violation of anyone's Second Amendment Rights. Most importantly, this action will limit persons encountering one another during this time of State of Emergency, consistent with Governor Roy Cooper's Executive Orders and that of Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford."

The gun-rights groups accused Baker of misinterpreting the law, comparing his actions to the Washington, D.C., handgun ban that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the landmark 2008 Heller ruling.

"Sheriff Baker is implementing by fiat what the Supreme Court struck down in Heller—a ban on a citizen's right to purchase a handgun for the defense of hearth and home," Ed Green, Grass Roots North Carolina director of legal affairs, said in a statement. "This action cannot be allowed to stand."

Hearings for each case have not yet been set.