Rooks: Defining ‘essential’ has many twists and turns

Gun Rights

Whenever a world-changing event such as coronavirus unfolds, there are decisions to be made that we never expected to confront.

One is the duty that fell to the nation’s governors about which businesses are essential, and should remain open, and which should be temporarily closed, to extend state and national quarantines.

Maine has some experience in this area. In 1991, when Senate Republican Leader Charlie Webster, with the acquiescence of Gov. John McKernan, decided to shut down state government by preventing passage of the budget, the governor defined what state services were essential.

Many of McKernan’s decisions were obvious – State Police and emergency services stayed on the job, but most state workers went home, unpaid. One choice McKernan came to regret was shutting down state liquor stores.

It was the July 4th holiday weekend, and scores of outraged out-of-staters demanded to know what was going on. By the next weekend, liquor stores had been redefined as “essential,” though the shutdown went on.

One longer-term effect was the phase-out of state liquor stores, with the last one closed during the King administration. This time, no one has suggested closing the liquor aisles at Shaw’s or Hannaford.

A Trump administration blooper of comparable dimensions came when the Department of Homeland Security unaccountably failed to include gun stores among “essential critical infrastructure” that needs to keep operating.

Although the DHS “guidance” isn’t binding, governors generally follow it. Several Democratic governors, including California’s Gavin Newsome, New Jersey’s Phil Murphy – and Maine’s Janet Mills – hadn’t included gun stores as “essential businesses.”

The National Rife Association went right to work, filing suit in California and, for quicker results, lobbying the administration; the NRA donated a staggering $30 million to the Trump campaign in 2016, and $54 million in total, almost all to Republicans.

Sure enough, a few days later DHS embraced gun stores as “critical infrastructure,” and the governors went along, with Mills’s revision coming March 31. Kittery Trading Post had been among the businesses criticizing the order, and quickly reopened.

One face-saving habit among bureaucracies is not to provide reasons for what they do. The redefinition of gun stores carried no explanation why they are, in fact, essential, but it’s a question that should be answered.

We know that the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, when most thought she would win, prompted rising gun sales. The coronavirus has produced a similar spike, as suggested by a rapid increase in background checks; by contrast, Donald Trump’s win in 2016 prompted a slump.

These results track an important facet of Republican Party ideology, as laid down by the NRA: No form of gun control, restriction or registration, however reasonable, can ever be permitted because even the mildest measure will lead to confiscation of guns.

Gun owners willing to talk about the recent surge in sales, however, have a different motivation – the need to defend their homes and stockpiles if public order collapses. These two justifications – an all-powerful government vs. one that cannot even maintain order – are contradictory, and provide an apt analogy to NRA lobbying: No matter what, we always need more guns.

Many outdoors businesses, from L.L. Bean to Dick’s Sporting Goods, have shut down stores. Outdoor recreation is defined as “essential,” with good reason. Yet if you want to buy a kayak, online ordering is the only option.

There are those of us who’d define bookstores as essential. A good book has enabled many to weather a crisis – the words-on-paper variety, not the screen version – and become an irreplaceable companion.

But bookstores and sporting goods stores have no mega-lobbyists, nor have they conducted a once-fringe but now amazingly successful campaign to define gun ownership as a constitutional right. It was enshrined by the late Justice Antonin Scalia in his 2008 Heller decision striking down Washington D.C.’s handgun ban.

For 219 years, the Second Amendment was understood to provide for collective defense, but Scalia redefined it as an individual right, comparable to First Amendment guarantees of speech, press, assembly and religion.

Gun control advocates have taken false comfort in Scalia’s suggestion that some regulation of guns is still permissible; just ask defenders of Roe v. Wade’s abortion rights how much comfort that has provided.

Heller is among recent 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, including several on voting rights and campaign spending, that must be reversed when the nation again focuses on public health, safety and security rather than radical individualism.

Coronavirus may ultimately cause us to rethink our priorities. What is truly essential to life? And what should we do about things that don’t contribute to our collective well-being?

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. The views expressed are those of the writer. He welcomes comment at

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