Alaska Legislature passes bill to keep gun stores open during disasters

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Alaska lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation that seeks to block state and local officials from closing gun stores during disasters declared by the governor, unless such closures apply to all other businesses.

The bill, HB61, is a response to business closures in Alaska and other states during the pandemic, according to a statement from House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican and the bill’s sponsor. Several other states have adopted similar bills.

The bill was one of the last debated by lawmakers in the waning days of the 121-day regular legislative session, which was set to end Wednesday. It was backed by the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association and criticized as a “special rights” bill by state Sen. Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Democrat.

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The measure passed the Senate 17-3 on Tuesday and was returned to the House for a concurrence vote. The House agreed 28-12 to pass the bill late Wednesday.

Last year a federal appeals court panel ruled that two California counties had violated the constitutional right to keep and bear arms when in 2020 they closed gun and ammunition stores as nonessential businesses during the pandemic. Alaska state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said HB61 aligns the state with that court decision.

For many residents in rural Alaska, “going to the ammo shop is essentially their way that they go and are able to … subsistence hunt and provide for their families,” Wielechowski said.

The measure additionally states that in situations in which a governor has declared a disaster emergency, the governor, state agencies or municipalities cannot issue orders barring people from possessing or using guns or other weapons for personal use or issue orders that limit the sale of guns, ammunition or other weapons for personal use.

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Prohibitions on gun possession would still apply to individuals who are otherwise restricted from having guns.

State law allows a governor to declare a disaster emergency if the governor finds a disaster has occurred or is “imminent or threatened.” Disaster emergency proclamations are not to remain in effect for longer than 30 days unless extended by the legislature.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a series of public health disaster emergency declarations during the pandemic. A 2020 order by Anchorage’s then-mayor was cited by Tilton’s office as an example of a situation in which there were gun store or shooting range closures during an emergency declaration. The city had issued its own emergency proclamation.

Jan Caulfield, a volunteer from Juneau with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, called the bill unnecessary. Lawmakers could have better used their time addressing issues such as high rates of gun deaths, she said.

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