In times of crisis, the true values of our leaders are often revealed. That was abundantly clear this past week in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán got Parliament to give him sweeping new powers. His excuse, of course, was the coronavirus pandemic, but his party went far farther than necessary: they dissolved Parliament, allowed him to rule by decree, slapped broad restrictions on freedom of speech, and indefinitely delayed all elections. These actions show that Orbán has never really cared for democracy, as he was willing to abandon it the moment he got the chance.

In the U.S., by contrast, even though liberal critics frequently accuse Donald Trump of having authoritarian tendencies, he hasn’t used the pandemic as an excuse to grab more power. Indeed, many of those same Trump critics who once accused him of dictatorial aspirations have lately been criticizing him for not using enough of his powers to battle the pandemic. While the White House and the CDC have been issuing recommendations, he hasn’t sought to impose sweeping national orders, like travel restrictions or shelter-in-place orders. Instead, he’s left much of the response up to the governors, which is exactly as it should be in our federalist system.

Governors have been taking different approaches around the country, depending on the situation in their state. Generally, Gov.Janet Mills has proceeded at a measured pace, only imposing sweeping measures as they’ve become absolutely necessary. She’s also frequently announced policies as recommendations before turning them into executive orders, giving people time to prepare. Her response has mostly been spared from partisan criticism, as Maine Republicans have given her a chance to make decisions without criticizing or questioning her every move. That’s certainly the right approach right now, as our elected officials should be focusing on solving problems, not partisan politics.

That relative partisan cease-fire hasn’t held up when it comes to one particular issue, though, nor should it: the Second Amendment. All over the country, Republican governors – like Chris Sununu, in neighboring New Hampshire – have tended to classify gun dealers as essential businesses, allowing them to remain open. Democratic governors and other local officials, meanwhile, are more likely to classify gun shops as non-essential and mandate their closure under a state of emergency.

Here in Maine, it wasn’t immediately clear whether gun shops would be allowed to remain opening during the state of emergency. Attorney General Aaron Frey decided that they shouldn’t be considered essential, and ordered the Kittery Trading Post to close. That earned him an immediate rebuke from House Republicans, who lambasted the move and called on the Mills administration to re-classify gun dealers as essential, as they have been in other states. That request was later reinforced with updated guidance from the Trump administration, which urged states to classify gun shops as essential.

Mills classified gun shops as essential businesses on Tuesday when she made her statewide stay-at-home order.


Part of the confusion in this situation is the lack of a clear definition in statue of “essential” and “non-essential.” That lack of a definition gives Mills, and other state governors, wide latitude to make the decision about what stays open on their own in a state of emergency. That failure is clearly one of the first issues the Legislature should address whenever they return to Augusta after the current crisis is over. At the federal level, the ability of the President to act is limited by the Tenth Amendment, but governors have much more sweeping powers within their own states – especially during an emergency.

The willingness of some governors to use those powers to classify our Second Amendment rights as non-essential shows that they don’t really have much respect for those rights at all. Mills did not exempt gun shops in her March 24 executive order, which shut down non essential, public-facing businesses. Even though Mills allowed gun shops to reopen a week later, her initial lack of consideration makes it abundantly clear that she can’t be trusted on the issue, now or in the future. A crisis is exactly when we need to be most vigilant about government encroaching upon our liberties, making sure that they’re only being constrained if absolutely necessary.

We need people in office who can be trusted to defend our constitutional rights at all times, not just when it’s easy and convenient. Hopefully, after this crisis is over, voters will remember how important it is who they elect as governor, and whether theirs was willing to respect their constitutional rights. It’s important that we all behave responsibly to get through this together, but that applies just as much to our elected officials as us.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: jimfossel

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