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Gun shops sue Massachusetts over coronavirus closures

HARDWICK - The Hardwick Rod & Gun Club is one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey. [T&G Staff/Kim Ring/TNS]

A group of gun owners, gun shop proprietors and a sportsmen’s club is suing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey alleging that their rights were violated when they were forced to shut down or were prevented from purchasing firearms after the shops were deemed nonessential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Leominster lawyer Andrew J. Couture filed the suit in US District Court on April 9, seeking to allow the businesses to reopen or to permit them access to the relief programs offered by the state for businesses being financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, the gun shop owners cannot seek assistance from those programs, Couture said.

“Ninety percent of these guns shops are small mom-and-pop businesses,” Couture said. “We are trying to get some immediate relief for them.”

What happened with the shops was confusing. Initially, they were deemed essential businesses, Couture explained.

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Baker on April 1 said gun shops could open as essential businesses, then reversed that decision shortly after Healey took to social media. She tweeted, “Guns shops and shooting ranges are NOT essential businesses during a public emergency. We cannot undermine the safety of our police officers, first responders, and domestic violence victims.”

Within hours, Baker’s list of essential businesses was retooled and gun shops were forced to close. A few stayed open because of the confusion or in defiance, and they made money, Couture said. Gun sales were on the rise as word of the pandemic spread, and, Couture said, people want to protect themselves in the current climate.

“The virus is going on and police are highly susceptible to becoming infected,” he said. “If they’re quarantined, they can’t do their job. If they can’t respond … or there are delays, what does that mean to the average homeowner?”

Couture said people who are licensed to carry firearms should have access to gun shops and ranges where they can practice. He said licensed gun owners are some of the “most responsible people you’ll meet” and they’re accustomed to social distancing because it’s something they routinely practice at the shooting ranges.

In the suit, he said that the federal Department of Homeland Security identified “firearms retailers and shooting ranges as essential under the heading of Law Enforcement, Public Safety and Other First Responders.”

Some of the 15 plaintiffs in the suit hail from Central Massachusetts. Demalia Firearms and Training in Hubbardston, Magnum Enterprises doing business as Bear Arms in Orange, and the Hardwick Rod and Gun Club in Hardwick have joined the action. Doris Stewart of Athol is also a plaintiff. Couture said she tried to purchase a firearm and couldn’t because of the closures.

While the case seeks relief for those hurt by the nonessential designation, it’s also about Second Amendment issues and civil rights, Couture said.

“Doris (and another plaintiff) is being denied her Second Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment and Article XVII rights as Governor and AG have substantially infringed on her right to keep and bear arms without providing due process under the law,” the suit alleges.

Couture said some of the plaintiffs have tried to compromise. Those who teach firearms safety classes wanted to hold the classes online but were denied.

“How can you get the virus by printing a certificate from a class you took online?” Couture asked.

Gun shop owners asked whether they might conduct business by appointment, as they do when they are selling firearms to law enforcement personnel, which is allowed. But that plan wasn’t acceptable, either, Couture said.

Couture said the essential designation is confusing because while liquor stores are deemed essential, recreational marijuana shops are not. He noted that Healey was also tweeting that abortions are essential services. Many hospitals are not performing elective surgeries.

Couture plans to file an emergency motion Wednesday because some of the business owners can’t pay their bills. He’s hoping for a video or telephone conference to quickly get the matter in front of a federal judge for a ruling to help the plaintiffs.

Couture said he’s been told that Baker, a Republican, “doesn’t care about gun owners,” and hasn’t pushed back against the attorney general on gun issues in the past. He said what’s happened here is going to bankrupt small businesses and he wishes Baker, whom he knows, would stand up for the businesses and gun owners.

“This is the wrong move, Charlie,” he said.

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© 2020 Telegram & Gazette