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Are pot and guns essential in a pandemic?

Second Amendment


“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the dictionary, the word essential has a simple definition. Merriam-Webster defines essential as an adjective meaning “of the utmost importance.”

The coronavirus outbreak is proving that, in practice, deciding what’s essential is much more complicated. States and cities across America have mandated that all nonessential businesses close to help stem the spread of the virus. The bulk of the exceptions to these restrictions are clearly of “utmost importance”: hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, etc. The lists vary from place to place, with some surprising businesses being allowed to remain open.

Two of the most debated businesses that have been deemed essential in some places are marijuana dispensaries and gun shops. Several states have allowed all pot retailers to stay open, while others are allowing sales only for medicinal use. Gun stores have been shuttered in a handful of states, and in others they have been allowed to stay open. The federal government recently added gun stores to its list of critical services, but the decision is ultimately up to individual states. 

Why there’s debate

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Recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C., albeit sometimes with restrictions on commercial sales. In those states, advocates say cannabis products provide relief for people with a long list of conditions, including anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that could be triggered by the stress of the pandemic. 

These advocates argue that limiting sales only to medical marijuana could mean those who lack the resources to get a prescription will go without treatment for an indeterminate amount of time. Others argue that closing legal pot vendors would open a market for illegal drug dealers who could be coronavirus superspreaders.

Beyond the typical criticism of legalized marijuana, some medical experts say it may be dangerous to promote use of smokable products at the same time that a virus causing severe respiratory illness is being spread through the population.

Gun rights supporters say closing firearms retailers violates their Second Amendment freedoms. Though states appear to be on sound legal ground in shutting down the shops, that could change if the closures are challenged in court, experts say. 

Others say citizens should have the right to buy guns to protect themselves should police forces experience any disruption because of the pandemic. Like marijuana, there are also concerns that shutting down legal retailers could lead to guns being sold on the black market without proper tracking or background checks.

Critics say guns aren’t necessary to carry out social distancing protocols, and allowing people to stock up on weapons out of fear risks escalating the country’s already pervasive gun violence problem. “We don’t live in the Wild West, where people are dependent on guns for food,” the mayor of San Jose, Calif., said when ordering all gun stores shuttered. 

What’s next

As the virus spreads across the country, new states may be forced to wrangle with the question of what to do about marijuana and gun sellers in the near future. The National Rifle Association has filed a lawsuit challenging California’s gun store closures that could inform decisions by other governors, depending on how it is decided. 

Perspectives

Marijuana

Marijuana is necessary treatment for a variety of mental health conditions

“There’s a great number of people with conditions like anxiety who medicate those conditions with cannabis. And a lot of folks are going to be suffering heightened degrees of anxiety and other types of emotional disruption given everything that’s going on.” — Steve DeAngelo, marijuana dispensary owner, to ABC News

Closing dispensaries will lead to unsafe illegal sales

“Not surprisingly, black-market pot dealers have also been doing a brisk business during the crisis, and unlike legal sellers, they feel little need to abide by official orders.” — Dan Levin, New York Times

Smoking marijuana presents unknown health risks 

“Some medical experts question the wisdom of allowing uninhibited access to marijuana during a massive public health crisis. They worry that customers flocking to pot shops could spread the virus, that stoned customers will engage in risky behavior and that smoking pot will worsen the lung damage for people who do become infected.” — Natalie Fertig, Mona Zhang and Paul Demko, Politico

Pot shouldn’t be treated as a cure-all for the mental health impact of current crisis

“What worries me is the fact that many people seem to be relying too much on the anxiety relief effects of cannabis to ease fears. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, I do hope people stay healthy by exercising more and by protecting themselves with face masks and hand sanitizers. There’s nothing wrong about having some weed, but we should not rely solely on it.” —  Dwight K. Blake, AmericanMarijuana.com editor in chief, to High Times

Limiting sales to medicinal marijuana will harm a lot of people 

“Because many people who use marijuana for therapeutic purposes don’t necessarily jump through the hoops needed in order to become officially certified as patients, recreational businesses are also seen as crucial access points that need to stay open.” — Tom Angell, Forbes

People should have access to products that make them feel good in stressful times

“Let’s be honest, a lot of us could use some high times right now.” — Tracey Anne Duncan, Mic

Guns

People have the right to protect themselves, especially in times of crisis

“Law-abiding citizens want the right to buy a gun, especially in the midst of a pandemic. … If shortages become more severe or if lots of police fall ill, chaos may very well ensue. People would rather be safe than sorry.” — John R. Lott Jr., National Review

The Second Amendment protects the right to purchase firearms

“Those who think suspending a constitutional right is acceptable because a virus is a health threat are truly mixing the proverbial apples and oranges to suit their own agendas. Gun dealers and their customers will do the right thing. Nobody is looking to make this situation worse. At the same time, citizens must be allowed to exercise their rights, especially during a national emergency.” — Alan Gottlieb, gun rights advocate, to Washington Free Beacon

Guns aren’t necessary to survive the outbreak

“Unless you plan on shooting those little coronaviruses one by one, no, gun shops are not providing an essential service during a pandemic. They are profiting from the marketing of fear — get armed now before the desperate hordes invade your neighborhood in search of toilet paper!” — Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

Closing gun shops could lead to more dangerous black market sales

“Even some gun control advocates say it might not be wise to shut down federally licensed firearms dealers, whose sales require background checks. That could force buyers to use a website or seek a private sale that doesn’t require a check, making it more difficult to trace a firearm if it’s used in a crime.” — Lisa Marie Pane and Jim Vertuno, Associated Press

The Constitution doesn’t prevent gun stores being closed as part of a larger shutdown

“The Second Amendment limits a state’s ability to impose special restrictions that apply only to gun dealers, but gun shops still must pay taxes, obey zoning regulations, and so forth. For this reason, if the governor of a state issues a broad order closing a state’s nonessential businesses, and that order does not single out gun shops for inferior treatment, gun stores typically should be bound by that order.”  — Ian Millhiser, Vox

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images



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