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Massachusetts quietly made gun retailers essential in extended executive order, then reversed exemption

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker updates reporters on the state's response to the novel coronavirus' spread around the world. (Steph Solis/MassLive.com/TNS)

When the updated list of essential businesses was published Tuesday, it included firearm and ammunition retailers, as well as manufacturers, retailers, importers and shooting ranges.

By Wednesday morning, that language no longer appeared on the state website. Under the latest list, manufacturers, importers and distributors can continue to operate, but shooting ranges and retailers must remain closed to the public until May 4, under the Gov. Charlie Baker’s latest executive order.

The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development confirmed Tuesday that the extended executive order does not apply to gun retailers. The addition of firearm makers, importers and distributors was meant to support military and law enforcement officers, who are considered essential workers.

It was not immediately clear why the state reversed course and that The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development did not immediately respond to follow up questions.

But the sudden change in guidelines, which took effect at noon Wednesday, caused confusion for some gun retailers and interest groups, as well as gun control advocates.

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The National Shooting Sports Foundation said it was told the state reversed course “to keep as many people home as possible,” and took issue with that explanation, noting that liquor stores are allowed to stay open.

“This antipathy for the respect of the right of Massachusetts citizens to protect themselves is alarming,” said Lawrence G. Keane, senior vice president and general counsel for NSSF. “Every other governor in New England is permitting their citizens the right to acquire a firearm. Even the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania have now recognized the limits of their authority to infringe on fundamental American rights and reversed course. Gov. Baker’s using a health crisis to further an antigun agenda that denies Americans their rights is inexcusable.”

NSSF led the push for new guidance at the federal level, speaking to the office of Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Politico reported.

Rina Schneur of the Massachusetts chapter of Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for tighter gun control laws, raised concerns about the Baker administration’s initial decision to include gun retailers and shooting ranges to the list of essential businesses.

She said allowing gun sales at a time when people across the state are all but forced to stay home could lead to more unintentional shootings hurting children, as well as suicides and domestic violence incidents.

“They may make some of the gun lobby richer, but it certainly will not make us safer, and it will make us less safe,” Schneur said.

After learning that the state reversed course, Moms Demand Action said the organization was glad that Baker recognized that gun stores are not essential.

Toby Leary, co-owner of Cape Gun Works in Hyannis, saw the initial language of the updated list of essential businesses, which allowed retailers to stay open. He learned from MassLive on Wednesday that the language had changed.

Cape Gun Works, a manufacturer, distributor and retailer, can still remain open under the latest essential businesses list. Leary said he has been focusing mostly on fulfilling the company’s contracts with local law enforcement and federal agencies. Their gun training classes have moved online, and their evening shooting range hours have been cut.

Still, Leary said some customers would be adversely affected by the rules on gun retailers. One customer last week sought ammunition for his daughter, who is in the police academy. Leary was low on ammunition at the time, so he could only sell the father a portion of what they needed.

“I feel we fit the guidelines in more than one way, but I’m talking more for the other retailers who have closed their doors in other parts of the state,” Leary added. “I think other states are recognizing that gun stores are an essential service.”

“Plus homeowners, general civilians maybe had to wait three months for their license to carry to come in and now they can’t buy a handgun,” he added. “It’s a further infringement of their rights.”

The Trump administration’s guidance deems gun stores essential, and states such as Alabama and Texas labeled gun sellers essential businesses.

In Massachusetts, Baker’s extended executive order closing non-essential businesses took effect at noon Wednesday. Non-exempt businesses could continue their work remotely or close temporarily.

Some Massachusetts gun shops have remained open despite the governor’s executive order. The Gun Parlor in Worcester informed customers on Facebook last week that they would remain open. On Friday, an “open” sign hung above the store’s entrance.

The Gun Parlor did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment last week.

When asked about the city’s enforcement, Worcester Police Lt. Sean Murtha said officials are working out the details with gun retailers because of a “gray area” after the state changed their guidelines twice.

It is unclear whether the Gun Parlor’s owner became aware of either update to the essential businesses list. When reached by phone on Wednesday, a representative said the owner was not available but that the store remained open.

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© 2020 MassLive.com