Sonoma County sheriff, city police chiefs say gun shops can remain open during pandemic shutdown

Concealed Carry

Sonoma County’s top law enforcement official won’t move to shut down gun dealers under the local shelter-in-place order, leaving it up to individual cities to decide whether to close firearm shops during the coronavirus pandemic.

“To some people, maybe not to everyone in this county, the ownership of a firearm is essential to the safe operation of their home,” Sheriff Mark Essick said Thursday in an interview.

Under his interpretation of Sonoma County’s shelter-at-home order, gun shops would fall under the exemption that allows grocery and convenience stores to operate amid the shutdown, along with “other establishments” that sell “household consumer products necessary for … the habitability, sanitation or operation of residences.”

Essick, who ran for office in 2018 on a pledge that he would widen access to concealed-carry firearm permits, said he voiced his stance on the issue to local police chiefs and also with Dr. Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County health officer who has ordered Sonoma County’s residents and businesses to drastically limit public activity until at least May 4.

With a few notable exceptions, California officials and county counterparts have neither banned nor explicitly allowed retailers of firearms to continue operating while pandemic orders are in place.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that he would leave the decision up to individual county sheriffs, and Sonoma County’s shelter-in-place order makes no mention of gun shops, firearms or ammunition.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially decided to close gun stores last month. After the National Rifle Association of America and other entities challenged him in court and following new Department of Homeland Security guidance listing firearms dealers as “essential critical infrastructure workers,” Villanueva reversed course and abandoned his effort to close gun shops.

Essick’s opinion is that gun stores are essential businesses, but he said he doesn’t want to cause problems for other police chiefs or interfere with city governments, leaving it up to municipalities whether to allow gun shops to operate.

“I’m trying to find some middle ground to let each jurisdiction make up their mind on this,” he said.

The police chiefs in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park — Sonoma County’s largest cities — said Thursday they would all align with the sheriff’s guidance and would consider firearms retailers as essential business activities in lieu of further guidance from state or county officials.

“Unless we hear otherwise, gun stores are essential,” said Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro.

Firearms retailers will have to follow social distancing rules and other requirements under the county’s latest order for businesses that remain open.

One of the largest retailers of firearms in Sonoma County is Sportsman’s Warehouse in Rohnert Park, which has been closed since March 25, according to its website. The store cited “mandates from the city” as the reason for closing.

“That is not true,” said Tim Mattos, Rohnert Park’s chief of police, calling the message “unfortunate.” He said the store’s general manager indicated on a recent phone call that the message was some kind of glitch and that the Rohnert Park location’s closure had been a corporate decision.

“We advised them that, at this point, we were not going to tell them they’re going to close,” Mattos said. “We advised them that if they were going to open their doors, they have to follow the new social distancing requirements, and they can only sell what is deemed to be essential.”

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