More on Liquor Stores as Essential Businesses

Compare liquor stores to gun stores as essential businesses.

Posted Mar 29, 2020

As a follow up to my piece on why liquor stores are essential businesses, I offer an addendum, a clarification, and a comparison to the designation of gun retailers as essential businesses.

Nate wrote to me asking about the statistics about excise taxes on alcohol, and offered this helpful chart. It’s a more nuanced look at the numbers.

Physician Tim wrote that alcohol is essential for those alcoholics experiencing severe withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly and those suffering from the delirium tremens (DTs) often require hospitalization. In the context of the pandemic, hospitals are overrun with covid-19 patients. Since many who suffer from the DTs often are unable to have the quantities of alcohol on hand they would need to not go into severe withdrawal, the availability of liquor is essential. An alcoholic may be able to buy just enough every day to fend off the worst effects. I appreciate Tim giving me the opportunity to more clearly express that alcohol is, in fact, essential for some people.

But while I would like to believe that the designation of liquor stores as essential business is a matter of the health of severe alcoholics, it doesn’t seem plausible that that is the driving consideration for the reasons I discuss in the piece. To see the ways the designation as “essential” is very much a consequence of politics and economics, consider the designation of gun retailers as essential businesses. Some states regard them as such while others have not.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an agency under the umbrella of the US Department of Homeland Security, has updated its Memorandum on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce. Workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges are now included under the category of Law Enforcement, Public Safety, and Other First Responders. While this list is advisory in nature, it has an effect on how individual states will classify businesses when governors issue “stay at home” orders for all non-essential work. As I asked about liquor stores, I ask about firearm retailers. In what sense are they essential?

A recent story on National Public Radio offers contrasting views on the question. On the one hand, the purchase and sale of guns allows each person to act as their own first responder when first responders are too busy with the pandemic. There is also a concern that any temporary restrictions on the purchase of firearms would become permanent, thereby eroding the Second Amendment. Those opposed to listing firearm retailers as essential businesses are concerned that people are buying guns to combat the pandemic, citing an incident in which an individual pulled a gun on two women wearing medical masks at a post office. More guns in the public, they argue, will make communities unsafe, especially if proper background checks are not completed.

My point is that there is nothing intrinsically essential about a gun during a pandemic. Rather, a firearm is essential only because many people treat them as such. Through various political maneuvering and lobbying, guns are classified as essential. That firearm retailers are regarded as essential is a political decision reflecting a commitment to an interpretation of the Second Amendment as providing an absolute inviolable right to gun ownership. In this view, there are no legitimate restrictions that can be put on gun ownership. Gun ownership necessarily requires the manufacture and sale of firearms, so those businesses are essential.

The designation of a type of business as essential is always a political decision. While there may be other underlying considerations, such as the need for alcohol to stave off withdrawal or the need to hunt food using a gun, the ultimate decision reflects a much broader political landscape.