Confusion reigns at New Mexico gun stores, where owners say Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s emergency public health order to limit the spread of the new coronavirus has left many wondering whether they’re allowed to stay open or in what capacity.
Although the public health order instituted last week unambiguously states all businesses not identified as essential were supposed to have closed by 8 a.m. Tuesday — and gun stores were not on the list — some have defied the edict.
Gun stores in New Mexico are interpreting the governor’s order liberally.
Some closed a day late or have resorted to online sales, restricting the number of people in the building or selling merchandise from the parking lot, according to Zach Fort, president of the New Mexico Shooting Association, an independent state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
Republicans, meanwhile, are clashing with the Governor’s Office at a time when many gun shops and sporting goods retailers saw such a spike in demand for weapons and ammunition that they ran out — or came close to running out — of inventory in the weeks before Lujan Grisham ordered them and other nonessential businesses to close.
In neighboring Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, listed gun stores as essential businesses.
“I understand the aspect of wanting to protect society and everything from a flu, but this is way overkill,” said Arnie Gallegos, owner of ABQ Guns, which is only doing online transfers of firearms already purchased.
“This is Nazi Germany, dude,” Gallegos said.
Big 5 Sporting Goods stores across the state closed last week. The Santa Fe store on Cerrillos Road was expecting a new shipment of ammunition at 11 a.m. Tuesday — just hours after the governor’s shutdown order took effect — according to a sign on the door. The sign warned customers they’d be limited to five boxes of ammo apiece on delivery day.
The night before, an apologetic store clerk explained to customers that handgun ammunition was sold out but would be available Tuesday.
A call to Big 5 that day went unanswered.
The Outdoorsman of Santa Fe, located in the DeVargas Center, did not return a message seeking comment. The mall, like others in the state, was ordered closed even before last week’s public health order.
Louie Sanchez, an owner of Calibers gun range in Albuquerque and a previous Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate before dropping out of the race, said the store had shut down the firing range. It allows one customer at a time in the store to buy ammunition. The business is sold out of firearms, he said.
“The challenge is the governor’s order is incomprehensible,” said Mark Abramson, owner of Los Ranchos gun store in Albuquerque, which is only allowing people to pick up firearms they’d already purchased before the order took effect.
“There’s a clear exception for security and police, and the challenge is if you’re a hardware store that sells guns, it appears you’re OK,” he said. “If you’re a gas station that sells ammunition, you’re OK. They appear to be, in enforcement, anyway, selecting a single industry, yet we’re providing the same service.
“The police have driven by like four times to make sure we’re shut down or largely shut down, and we are,” Abramson added.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email the order is clear: “If a business is not listed as essential in the order, then they’re not essential and they are ordered closed.
“Businesses need to be looking for ways to opt into the order to close, not for excuses to opt out,” Sackett continued. “This is true for every single business in every single industry. We understand it’s so hard for businesses to change or suspend their operations in this way. But public health demands it. … This is the only way we will slow the spread of the virus.”
To many gun owners and would-be first-time buyers, the shutdown of gun stores is a big problem, Republicans say.
A handful have said publicly they believe the coronavirus pandemic could cause a breakdown in society or widespread looting. And they want to be prepared — with guns and bullets.
“Many people are feeling even more vulnerable in these uncertain and turbulent times,” Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said in a statement. “The blanket order for nonessential business is understandable, but we believe the inclusion of gun stores as non-essential should be reconsidered to allow people to purchase protective firearms.”
Alexis Johnson, a vocal, pro-gun Republican candidate running for the state’s 3rd Congressional District seat, has said she can’t sleep at night without ammunition.
“In no way was I an extremist,” she said last week. “I was just a constitutional Second Amendment right bearer.
“And now, we are in a pandemic. We have volatility in our economics, we see that people are scared.”
Johnson told her supporters on Facebook that gun stores have been forced to close by “police escort.”
Another Republican candidate, Elisa Martinez, who is running for U.S. Senate against U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, said she thinks Lujan Grisham “is obsessed with going after responsible gun owners.”
That’s the feeling of many on the political right.
Although the NRA declined to comment publicly, the association’s lobbying arm has informed its supporters that many gun shops have defiantly remained open because “the governor’s order did not explicitly order them closed,” an NRA email said.
“Your NRA-ILA [Institute for Legislative Action] has now learned that Governor Grisham is making her anti-gun proclivities clear by tasking the State Patrol with driving by gun stores and telling dealers that they are, and will remain, closed to the public,” the email continued, urging people to inquire about online sales.
Fort of the New Mexico Shooting Association said gun stores have been contacted by state police and informed they can continue online sales, a belief he said is keeping more widespread anger over the governor’s order at bay for now.
But according to state police, that is still in violation of the public health order. To complete an online firearm transaction, the buyer has to come to the store for an in-person background check, as required by federal law. Showing up in person to a nonessential business violates the order.
Officer Dusty Francisco, a state police spokesman, said the agency is not yet “enforcing full closure,” but officers are informing gun store owners they are supposed to be closed and remaining open could subject them to civil or criminal penalties.
Francisco added that “there’s no time frame” on how long shops have until police begin issuing fines for violating the emergency public health order. He also said he was not aware of state police telling gun store owners they can continue selling firearms online.