By Stacy Fernández/Texas Tribune
El Paso gun stores re-opened Friday within hours of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s nonbinding opinion that cities and counties couldn’t order them closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several El Paso stores selling guns and ammunition said by phone that they were open Friday, including Cabelas, one of the nation’s largest gun retailers. They were open even though the city’s “Stay Home, Be Safe” order, which took effect Tuesday, still didn’t include them among essential businesses allowed to continue operation.
Mayor Dee Margo said at a news briefing Friday afternoon that the city would comply with Paxton’s opinion and allow gun stores to stay open.
At Sportsmen’s Elite, a West El Paso store that sells guns and ammunition, a line formed outside because only five customers at a time were allowed inside as protection against spreading infection. As they walked in, customers walked by a sign staying the store was closed indefinitely.
Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”
Lubbock lawmaker requested opinion
Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.
“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.
Many cities and counties, including El Paso, had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the firearms businesses.
“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.
Opinion produced quickly
The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.
Essential workers and businesses are allowed and sometimes required by the government to stay open during an emergency. Hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations and airports are considered essential businesses by local officials, however, the rules differ from county to county.
Are guns and ammunition stores essential?
In a radio interview Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said gun stores and places that sell ammunition are essential businesses because if there’s a “break down of society” people need to be able to defend themselves.
“I think having a weapon … is very important for your personal safety. And for anyone to say that’s not essential, I really don’t understand,” said Patrick, a longtime member of the National Rifle Association.
But Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense said guns are not essential to Texas’ pandemic response.
“People tend to cite their own personal protection as the reason for getting a gun, and the data shows that you’re more at risk if you have a firearm in your home,” Switzer said.
Robert Moore of El Paso Matters contributed to this story.