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As local and state governments began to shut down "nonessential" businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last week, firearm purchases soared. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group, reported that the number of FBI background checks for gun buyers on March 16 was four times as high as on the same date last year.
The anxious surge in firearm sales raises an obvious question: Do gun stores count as "essential" businesses that can continue to operate during lockdowns? Different states have answered that question differently, leading to lawsuits and some backtracking.
At least 10 states and the District of Columbia have issued broad orders shutting down businesses. Their definitions of "essential" businesses that are allowed to remain open vary. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for example, exempted "firearm and ammunition suppliers and retailers for purposes of safety and security," while California Gov. Gavin Newsom initially did not.
Two days ago, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced that his deputies would be visiting local gun stores and ordering them to shut down. "We will be closing them," he told the Fox station in Los Angeles. "They are not an essential function. I'm a supporter of the Second Amendment. I'm a gun owner myself. But now you have the mixture of people that are not formerly gun owners, and you have a lot more people at home, and anytime you introduce a firearm in a home, from what I understand from CDC studies, it increases fourfold the chance that someone is gonna get shot."
Villanueva probably had in mind much-criticized research such as the 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study that reported a threefold increase in the risk of homicide for people who keep guns at home, or the 2009 American Journal of Public Health study that reported a more-than-fourfold increase in the risk of being shot. By leaping from correlation to causation, such studies ignore the ways in which people who keep guns for self-protection may differ from people who do not—in particular, their pre-existing risk of being shot or murdered.
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