Massachusetts must allow gun stores to reopen despite pandemic, judge rules

BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday ordered Massachusetts authorities to allow gun shops to reopen after the governor deemed them non-essential businesses that needed to close to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock in Boston ruled that the restrictions ordered by Republican Governor Charlie Baker in response to the pandemic imposed an “improper burden” on the constitutional rights of citizens seeking to possess firearms.

Baker imposed the restrictions through executive orders issued beginning in mid-March that, like those adopted in other states, forced the closure of an array of brick-and-mortar businesses in response to the public health emergency.

Several would-be gun purchasers, retailers and gun rights advocacy groups, including the Second Amendment Foundation, sued, arguing the orders amounted to an unconstitutional ban on acquiring firearms and ammunition for self-defense purposes.

Woodlock, during a hearing held remotely by videoconference because of the pandemic, said he understood “this is a small corner of a large issue that the governor is grappling with and undoubtedly has not been at focus of his attention.”

“But that individuals who have rights under the Constitution find those rights burdened and without explanation means that they have a day in court,” he said.

He cited a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling holding that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment guaranteed an individual’s right to own guns for self-defense inside the home.

Woodlock ordered the state to allow firearms retailers to re-open by noon on Saturday under restrictions meant to promote cleanliness and social distancing.

David Jensen, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement it “is important to ensure that we protect constitutional rights, even (and especially) during times of emergency.”

Baker told a press conference he needed to review the decision. “We will certainly comply with any kind of judicial ruling on anything,” he said.

The case is one of several nationally seeking to keep gun shops open after states began directing the closure of businesses to reduce infections.

While many states have begun lifting those restrictions, Baker, a Republican in a state where voters in the last eight presidential elections chose Democrats, recently extended the closure of non-essential businesses by two weeks to May 18.

Nationally, Massachusetts has the third-highest number of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, with 73,721 confirmed as of Thursday, the state’s Department of Public Health said. It said 4,552 people in the state have died.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Bostonl; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Dan Grebler