Groceries. Gasoline. Medical care. Marijuana, in some places. All have been designated essential to society in more than a dozen states that have ordered many other businesses to close.

But what about guns?

Firearm and ammunition sales have soared in recent weeks, so clearly, some Americans want them. A gun industry association is lobbying federal and state governments to categorize firearm manufacturers and dealers as critical infrastructure, complaining that F.B.I. background checks are slowing things down as more people try to purchase weapons.

But officials have been split over whether gun stores and ammunition dealers can remain open alongside pharmacies, gas stations and laundromats, leading to confusion and legal challenges as at least 19 states have issued some form of stay-at-home orders. In Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, gun stores have been deemed essential. In New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, they have not.

In Los Angeles, where long lines of customers have been stretching out the door of some gun shops over the past few weeks, the county sheriff ordered his deputies to make sure they were closed after 10 million residents were ordered to stay at home starting last weekend. But on Tuesday, after the county’s top lawyer said the shops could stay open, the sheriff reversed his decision.

The patchwork of policies and shifting interpretations have highlighted the question of what is truly an essential business during the pandemic, with lobbyists and guns rights advocates arguing that even a public health emergency shouldn’t restrict the Second Amendment.

“People want to exercise their God-given right to bear arms and protect their families,” said Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry association lobbying for special protection for dealers and manufacturers.

But advocates for stricter gun safety measures argue that a run on gun stores could itself pose a public health concern if new buyers aren’t trained properly, new guns aren’t stored safely and background checks aren’t completed.

“Guns will not make Americans safer in the face of Covid-19,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Underscoring the concerns, several recent gun-related incidents have been linked to fears surrounding the pandemic.

Police in Alpharetta, Ga., on Sunday arrested a man they accused of pointing a gun at two women wearing medical masks and gloves because he feared he might contract the coronavirus. A man in New Mexico was charged last week with the accidental shooting death of his 13-year-old cousin with a gun he told police he was carrying “for protection” amid the outbreak. And in Maine, a man with a felony conviction who claimed he needed guns to protect himself during the outbreak was charged with illegally possessing a firearm.

As some states have moved to close gun shops alongside other businesses, they have faced quick legal challenges.

In Pennsylvania, gun rights advocates filed lawsuits to block Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that labeled gun stores as nonessential. Although a divided state Supreme Court dismissed the legal challenge, the governor on Tuesday allowed gun shops to reopen with protocols on social distancing.

On Monday, a federal lawsuit in New Jersey challenged Gov. Phil Murphy’s order for gun stores to close, which also prompted the State Police to shut down the state’s background check website.

Demand for firearms has been growing throughout the coronavirus outbreak, with widespread reports of firearms and survival gear flying off the shelves, including in California, New York, Washington State, Alabama and Ohio. Data from the F.B.I. show a sizable increase in background checks for gun purchases since the start of the year, though other factors, such as the national political campaign and gun control efforts by some state legislatures, might have also played a role.

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transcript

Most Americans Want More Gun Control. Why Doesn’t It Happen?

Polls show solid support for stricter laws, especially after mass shootings. But there is also deep disagreement, staunch opposition and growing disenchantment with gun control.

“We want change, we want change …” “I don’t understand why I could still go in a store and buy a weapon of war.” “There’s no better time than now to talk about gun control.” These are calls the American public has heard before. After Orlando — “Democrats and Republicans we spoke with agree, suspected terrorists, like the Orlando shooter, should not be allowed to purchase firearms.” After Sandy Hook — “90 percent of Americans support universal background checks.” After each mass shooting, there’s a surge of public support for stricter gun control. “A new poll from Quinnipiac University shows record high support for stricter gun laws.” So why hasn’t Washington put stricter gun laws on the books? There are several factors, ranging from partisan divides to gun owner activism to the N.R.A.’s political clout. No. 1: There’s broad support, but also big divisions on gun control. The most comprehensive data is from 2017, and it shows that 60 percent of Americans say they want stricter gun laws. Support is even higher for things like a 30-day waiting period for gun sales and universal background checks. But dig deeper, and you find the devil is in the details — and the divides. Most Democratic voters want stricter gun laws. But less than 1 in 4 Republicans agree. Most Americans who don’t own firearms say easy access to legal guns fuels gun violence. Fewer than half of gun owners agree. Non-owners want to ban assault-style weapons, while most gun owners don’t. “The person is the criminal, not the weapon.” Gun owners may be a minority, but they’re a very focused and vocal minority. Only about 3 in 10 Americans own a gun. But to them, gun control is not merely a policy issue — it’s personal. Nearly 40 percent say they always have a loaded firearm at the ready in their home. 74 percent say the right to own a gun is “essential” to their freedom. Gun owners are much more likely to contact lawmakers about gun policy, compared to non-owners, and far more likely to donate to gun advocacy and policy groups. No. 3: The N.R.A. is a formidable force in politics. Less than 20 percent of gun owners in America say they belong to the N.R.A., but it’s big enough, and disciplined enough, to turn elections and to end political careers. Part of what makes the N.R.A. so formidable is the money it spends helping friendly politicians and attacking those deemed enemies. “Ross voted against your gun rights.” The N.R.A.’s vast marketing efforts have helped turn gun ownership into a badge of cultural identity. “It is not about politics. It is a way of life. I feel like we should be able to express that.” And their catchphrases have become ubiquitous. ”You know, the guns don’t kill people,” people kill people.” No. 4: The N.R.A.’s leaders are more hard-line than its members. Polls show that N.R.A. members do support some gun control policies, like outlawing sales to the mentally ill and people on terror watch lists. Most also favor universal background checks. But time and time again, N.R.A. leaders in Washington work to kill these proposals. After Sandy Hook, N.R.A. leaders flipped the script on mass shootings. Instead of combating calls for new gun control, they actually demanded more gun rights. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” And finally, No. 5: Are Americans really clamoring for more gun control? Maybe not. We see spikes and public support for stricter laws in the wake of mass shootings like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Las Vegas. But in a matter of weeks, the bumps fade. In fact, overall Americans have actually grown less supportive of gun control over the past 25 years. The shootings, meanwhile, continue.

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Polls show solid support for stricter laws, especially after mass shootings. But there is also deep disagreement, staunch opposition and growing disenchantment with gun control.CreditCredit…Tom Brenner/The New York Times

But as states began preparing for lockdowns on March 16, criminal background checks soared 300 percent compared with the same date in 2019, according to federal data shared with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Since late February, roughly twice as many background checks have been conducted as during the same period last year, the group said.

The F.B.I. would not comment on those figures, but said in a statement that the background check system remained fully operational and asked for the public’s patience “during this period of national emergency.”

When Illinois issued an order on March 20 to close essential businesses, it included gun shops among the exemptions allowed to stay open. Since then, Second Amendment Sports, a gun shop and shooting range in McHenry, Ill., has been busy, said the store’s owner, Bert Irslinger Jr., who called sales over the past 10 days “the best we’ve ever had.”

Registration for shooting courses has also been high, he said. “We saw classes filling up fast, so we offered other dates and times so we could keep classes small” to follow social distancing guidelines, Mr. Irslinger said. “We’re no different than any other industry where practice makes perfect.”