OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency stay-home order didn’t deem firearms dealers essential — like grocery stores and pharmacies — and necessary to stay open as much of society closes down to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
But that isn’t stopping Tiffany Teasdale, owner of Lynnwood Gun, from keeping her doors open.
“We don’t have anything in writing that says we need to stay closed,” Teasdale said. “And I don’t know anything about what the governor has said.”
Teasdale doesn’t appear to be the only firearms dealer in open defiance of Inslee’s emergency order. Gun-shop owners have been communicating on a group email, she said, and most are staying open.
In Bellevue, Wade’s Eastside Guns posted a note to its website explaining why they’re open: “Your right to the protection of yourself, your family and others is an essential need and a constitutional right!”
The defiance is the latest escalation between gun-rights advocates and a state that has — to their consternation — steadily moved toward more firearms restrictions. After state voters in 2018 approved a sweeping package of gun restrictions with Initiative 1639, many law-enforcement officials said they would not enforce it due to constitutional concerns.
The clash comes as dozens of Republican state lawmakers and more than a dozen local law enforcement officials — including Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney — have asked Inslee to designate guns stores as essential.
Closing gun shops “threatens the continued operations” of law enforcement because some agencies depend upon local shops for ammunition and firearms, according to the letter by law enforcement.
Aside from constitutional concerns of the emergency order, Teasdale pointed to recent nonbinding guidance by President Donald Trump that deemed firearms dealers essential. She considers self-defense essential.
The situation could get more contentious. The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) has prepared a lawsuit to file in U.S. District Court against Inslee if gun stores are forced to close, according to the organization’s founder, Alan Gottlieb.
“Gun stores are still open and the state is doing the background check for sales and transfers,” wrote Gottlieb. “As soon as it is ripe we will file. Plaintiffs and complaint are ready!”
In a recent news release, SAF has claimed credit for the governor of New Jersey declaring that state’s firearm shops would stay open after the organization filed a legal challenge.
The questions about constitutionality and gun rights come as Washington state officials use emergency powers not seen in modern history, if ever.
The governor has closed schools, banned gatherings and shuttered businesses to slow the outbreak of a virus that has killed more than 200 Washingtonians — and could fell thousands more.
Everett Billingslea, who worked for former Gov. Gary Locke, said officials using emergency powers must weigh them against constitutional rights.
The question over gun shops is not unlike constitutional questions about the ban on gatherings of people, said Billingslea, who served for years as Locke’s top lawyer.
But temporarily closing stores is different than outlawing the possession of firearms, he said, adding, “If they came and took all the guns away, that’s a totally different issue.”
The state constitution has even stronger provisions for gun rights than the U.S. constitution, according to Hugh Spitzer, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law.
But state lawmakers also have a long history of regulating firearms, he said, dating back to before Washington was even a state.
“Our court has always allowed reasonable restrictions on firearms in the interest of public health and safety,” he said, adding later: “I don’t think our courts are going to second-guess the governor’s decision on this.”
Spitzer said he didn’t think the outcome would be different in the federal courts.
Still, deciding whether a gun shop is “essential” is subjective, said Spitzer. Governors elsewhere have declared firearms dealers essential in their emergency orders.
A spokeswoman for Inslee’s office this week said the stores are considered nonessential under Inslee’s order.
“My understanding is that gun shops are not considered essential and are included in the temporary closure of nonessential businesses,” wrote Tara Lee.
Teasdale hasn’t been contacted by the state or local law enforcement telling her to close, she said, and the city Police Department is processing the background checks requests she has been sending over for gun sales.
In a time of fear over the global pandemic, Teasdale said business at her store is brisk.
“We went from 25 guns being a good days for sales, to 150 guns on average,” she said.
Many recent customers have been first-time gun buyers, and many of those are of Asian descent, Teasdale said, and are worried about possible harm to them from backlash by those who blame China for the virus.
Teasdale said her store is taking social-distancing measures, with people standing 6 feet apart, and only three customers allowed in the store at one time.
Employees are meanwhile are using sanitizer and wiping down surfaces, she said, “to go the extra mile to make sure our customers are safe.”
Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney said he signed the letter to Inslee primarily because of questions about U.S. constitutional rights.
But Fortney said he would close shops operating in violation of the order if necessary, adding, “I’m going to comply with what the governor says.”
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