Patrick Ishmael

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerated this spring, governments across the country clamped down dramatically on businesses and associations of all kinds. Churches were closed. Restaurants were reduced to carryout, if they were lucky. Other locally owned stores were reduced to even less than “carryout,” often forced to only sell their wares online. Some will make it through the year; others won’t.

But you know who’s doing just fine? Box stores like Walmart and Home Depot and online giants like Amazon. For those massive commercial players, coronavirus evolved into a windfall so great that some of these businesses had to shorten their hours or delay shipping packages.

You know who else is doing just fine? Gun stores, but not because of the goodness of local officials’ hearts. Under Missouri law:

The state, any political subdivision, or any person shall not prohibit or restrict the lawful possession, transfer, sale, transportation, storage, display, or use of firearms or ammunition during an emergency.

Despite attempts to temporarily shut down gun shops around the country, local officials in Missouri largely resigned themselves to applying social distancing guidelines rather uniformly against gun retailers, from Cabela’s to tiny mom and pop gun shops. The purpose of Missouri’s gun law—protecting individuals’ Second Amendment rights—is straightforward. But the effect of the law was to level the playing field between big and small gun retailers, which stands in stark contrast to how local officials treated other small businesses.

Small gun shops could stay open as legally “essential.” But what about small businesses that sold candles, or sporting equipment, or anything else that Walmart and a cadre of other protected operators sold throughout the pandemic? Those small businesses did not get to enjoy the protections of state law, were often deemed “inessential” by local officials and were shut down—in some cases for months.

That’s wrong.

If Walmart can stay open and sell, say, candles, Missouri’s locally owned candle makers should be able to stay open. There is no reason to believe that small businesses can’t undertake rational social distancing and cleaning practices that large retailers have used throughout this pandemic.

How do we know this? Because local gun shops did it. Missouri law should reflect this reality for all small businesses and ensure that Missouri’s entrepreneurs aren’t the victims of disparate treatment by panicked local bureaucrats.

And Missouri should come back into special session and pass a law that makes this clear: If Walmart is essential, all of Walmart’s competitors should legally be, as well. Whether this requires the creation of a brand new statute or can be achieved by expanding the section that already protects gun retailers, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that legislators act now—before another round of the pandemic hits, and before local businesses can be victimized a second time by inequitable and uneven local public health enforcement.


About the Author

Patrick Ishmael
Director of Government Accountability

Patrick Ishmael is the director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute.