A coalition of gun shops, advocacy groups, and would-be gun owners sued Governor Charlie Baker in federal court Thursday in a bid to allow shuttered firearm dealers to legally reopen amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit argues Baker stepped on prospective owners’ constitutional rights when he ordered gun shops to close as part of a sweeping ban on nonessential businesses designed to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The decision, the lawsuit states, amounts “to a ban on obtaining modern arms for personal defense."
“This emergency — like any other emergency — has its constitutional limits,” the 18-page complaint reads. “It would not justify a prior restraint on speech, nor a suspension of the right to vote. Just the same, it does not justify a ban on obtaining guns and ammunition.”
The plaintiffs, which include four gun shops and groups such as Commonwealth Second Amendment and the Second Amendment Foundation, also argue that “personal self-defense is most acute during times of uncertainty and crisis.” They cite the potential release of some inmates amid the pandemic and that some suspects “may be less likely to be taken into custody in the first place.”
“It is precisely times like these that the Plaintiffs and the Plaintiffs’ members need to be able to exercise their fundamental rights to keep and bear arms,” the lawsuit reads.
It’s the second legal challenge Baker has faced in as many days after a group of marijuana businesses and consumers sued him in state court over his decision to shut down recreational cannabis operations.
The lawsuit also follows others around the country where critics have challenged similar closures, including in states that later reversed course.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy initially closed but then allowed gun shops to reopen after federal officials changed their guidelines. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf also allowed gun dealers to reopen last month after three justices on the state’s highest court urged him to do so.
Baker ordered a swath of businesses, including gun dealers, to shutter their physical stores on March 24. He expanded the list of businesses considered “essential” roughly a week later, including adding gun distributors and manufacturers.
The list also included, albeit briefly, retailers and shooting ranges, but they were abruptly removed the same day. Baker’s office has said it followed federal guidelines but “tailored the list to reflect [the state’s] unique economy."
A spokesman for Baker declined to comment Thursday on the lawsuit, which also names Baker’s public health commissioner and several local chiefs who enforced the order.
According to the lawsuit, one plaintiff, Jim Simmons of New Bedford, bought a handgun from a Westport gun shop on March 30 — even though Baker’s first order closing gun retailers had already been in effect for close to a week.
But "due a delay in the background check system,” Simmons was told to come back three days later, on April 2. In the time between, Baker released his revised order, and the state on April 2 sent notices to local police “reinforcing” the order, according to the lawsuit.
Simmons, who has a valid gun permit but doesn’t own any guns, returned to the story that day only to be turned away by Westport police, according to the lawsuit.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.