By Bob Katzen
U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock issued a preliminary injunction lifting a March 23 executive order by Gov. Baker that required firearm retailers to close their physical businesses during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The suit was brought by gun shop owners and gun rights groups. The battle is not yet over as the state will have until May 28 to file its rebuttal seeking dismissal of the lawsuit.
The judge said that Baker’s executive order closing down the gun retailers during the pandemic violates the Second Amendment. “We don’t surrender our constitutional rights,” Woodlock ruled. “These plaintiffs have constitutional rights that deserve respect and vindication, and it becomes necessary for a court to do that rather than the executive [branch] when the executive declines.”
Under the ruling, retailers may sell guns, ammunition and other related items between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. by appointment only, with not more than four appointments per hour. The opening of the shops would be subject to any further land use limitations imposed by the city or town hosting the shops. Employees and customers are required to wear masks, handwashing and alcohol wipes must be available, and social distancing requirements must also be followed.
Plaintiffs criticized the administration’s decision to include gun retailers on the list of non-essential businesses that must close their stores amid the pandemic while other businesses such as liquor stores were deemed essential and allowed to stay open.
“This emergency, like any other emergency, has its constitutional limits,” the plaintiffs alleged. “The need for personal self-defense is most acute during times of uncertainty and crisis when law enforcement services may not be available or may not be reliably available … and criminal offenders may be released from custody or may be less likely to be taken into custody in the first place.”
Baker administration lawyers pointed to the limited time frame for the closure and alternatives such as private person-to-person sales and the availability of some ammunition at Walmart stores and in border states. Assistant Attorney General Julia Kobick said the rationale for the gun shops closures was to help stop transmission of the virus.
“[We are] very pleased with the decision from Judge Woodlock,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL) of Massachusetts. “During [the] hearing, the judge pressed the state for specific answers as to why [gun] retailers were removed from the essential list. The judge said the state could not, or choose not to, provide an answer to the court why Baker listed ranges and retailers as essential and then suddenly removed them. It was then that the judge strongly hinted that the action seems more about politics than health policy.”
“While Judge Woodlock stated that the Baker administration failed to provide sufficient justification for closure of gun stores during the pandemic, we would like to emphasize the compelling reasons for such a closure,” said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. “Access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide and also increases the risk of lethality for victims of domestic violence by 500 percent. Adding guns to households during a time of forced isolation and stress is a threat to public health and safety.”