A growing number of Republican lawmakers have called on Gov. Phil Murphy to add gun shops to the state’s list of essential businesses during the coronavirus public health emergency.

Murphy on Saturday ordered all but “essential” businesses to close to the public. Businesses that are deemed essential include grocery stores, pet food stores, financial institutions, marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores and pharmacies. Later in the week, the state expanded the list to include bicycle repair shops, phone retailers and farming and gardening-related businesses.

Now gun shop owners and Second Amendment advocates are suing the Murphy administration in federal court, saying the shut-down order that included them is unconstitutional.

Republican lawmakers across the state also are calling for a change to the order, pointing to states like Pennsylvania and Illinois, where Democratic governors allowed gun shops to continue operating during their states’ shutdowns.

During a daily news briefing on Wednesday, Murphy said that he had “gotten not one complaint from anybody that they were trying to buy a gun and couldn’t,” even though his office later told New Jersey 101.5 that they’ve received about 500 calls and emails regarding the issue.

Gun shop owners said they found Murphy’s statement hard to believe.

The plaintiffs in the federal complaint include Somerset County resident Robert Kashinsky, who was in the process of buying a gun at Legend Firearms in the Middlesex County township of Monroe when Murphy’s order came down.

The lawsuit says Kashinsky was interested in buying a firearm in order to protect his family during this uncertain time. He was unable to do so.

The State Police also ordered that the system that gun shops use to conduct background checks also be shut down during the emergency.

While answering questions posed Wednesday by New Jersey Second Amendment Society president Alex “Alejandro” Roubian, Murphy said “I respect the Second Amendment” but added that he had a “philosophical disagreement on a very basic level” with Roubian “ on the broader question of what does a safer society look like?”

Murphy said that for him a safer society has fewer guns and the guns that exist “are in the hands of the right people, particularly trained members of law enforcement.”

Murphy also noted that crime continues to be down.

Joe Hawk, owner of Guns & Roses in Toms River, and who is not part of the lawsuit, said he had about 80 customers waiting to purchase firearms before Murphy’s order went into effect. He said business was increasing by 25% a day as news about the pandemic continued to spread.

Hawk said the order was making it difficult for police and security guards — who are considered essential workers during the emergency — to buy ammunition.

“This should be based on facts. He’s rushing to judgment on these people," Hawk said about gun owners. “You’re telling people that they can’t be trusted with a weapon but then they can be trusted after this is over? That’s a contradictory statement.”

State Sens. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, and Michael Testa, R-Cape May, said armed citizens could be needed in the event that police departments run into staffing shortages.

“In many rural areas that have no local police, people can wait an hour or longer for the State Police to respond to a call for help even in the best of times,” Doherty said. “What’s going to happen when more police departments, including the State Police, start experiencing real staffing issues due to the coronavirus?”

Assemblyman Eric Peterson, R-Hunterdon, said Murphy’s order was destroying gun shops in order “to virtue signal to anti-gun activists.”

“Every right guaranteed to citizens under the U.S. Constitution should always be protected, especially in times of emergency,” he said.

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso and Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger — Republicans representing the same Monmouth County district — said citizens should be able to “invoke their Second Amendment right” to purchase guns “as long as they are practicing social distancing and proper hand-washing.”

The three legislators also called for allowing car dealerships to sell vehicles and to allow , computer and technical service stores to open.

The federal lawsuit, whose plaintiffs also include New Jersey Second Amendment Society and the Second Amendment Foundation based in the state of Washington, says Murphy’s order violates Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that citizens have a right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. Federal court decisions have also upheld New Jersey’s strict gun-control laws.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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