Gun control activists on Monday criticized guidance issued by President Donald Trump's administration recommending that states find that gun stores are critical businesses that can stay open during the coronavirus crisis.
The new guidance, issued on Saturday by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, offers the administration's views on which workers are essential during the pandemic at a time when state governors have ordered numerous "non-essential" businesses to close to try to limit the spread of the virus. The agency is part of the US Department of Homeland Security.
Gun control advocates said gun rights groups are sowing fear during the pandemic in order to boost firearms sales, adding that increased gun ownership during the crisis could lead to more domestic violence.
"Adding more guns to more homes during a time of more anxiety could lead to more deaths. And that's the last thing we need when our hospitals are already bursting at the seams," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun control group.
Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun industry groups have "exploited the current crisis to further the interests of gun manufacturers."
The agency's guidance stated that "workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors and shooting ranges" are among those the administration considers vital during the crisis. Other essential businesses listed included healthcare facilities, grocery stores, transportation companies and the energy sector.
The guidance carries no formal legal weight. Governors, who decide the content of emergency orders like those already in place in numerous states, do not have to follow it though they could cite it as justification for their decisions.
The list is intended to help states "protect their communities, while ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety," Christopher Krebs, the agency's director, wrote in a memorandum issued with the new guidance.
The administration's intervention has been welcomed by gun rights groups, which have been lobbying to keep gun stores open and in some case filing lawsuits in several states including California and New Jersey.
"In these uncertain times, the ability to protect yourself - and to acquire firearms, magazines and ammunition - should not be ignored," said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America.
The most influential US gun rights group, the National Rifle Association, also backed the administration's move. Trump, seeking re-election on November 3, and other Republicans are closely aligned with the NRA.
The dispute over guns is one of several new fronts in the US culture wars on issues including abortion and voting rights that have emerged as the pandemic causes widespread disruption of daily life.