We are in the midst of a medical, economic and social catastrophe — and it is essential that the public be prepared and not panic.
In New York City’s Central Park, workers diligently constructed makeshift medical tents to supplement Mount Sinai Hospital’s deluged emergency room facilities while the gigantic U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Comfort, red crosses painted on its hull, steamed north past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to drop anchor at a Hudson River pier. The ship’s risky mission is to admit patients with medical problems other than the coronavirus to relieve pressure on filled-to-capacity New York hospitals.
I find myself in an unmonitored house arrest, hunkered down in Florida for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. Restaurants are closed here. My wife and I cook our meals or order out from grab-and-go. The staff wear masks in the small specialty store where we buy provisions. Gloves are offered to patrons at the door. Beaches and golf clubs are closed. Recreation is allowed, but bicycles are barred from the walking trails where pedestrians and joggers regard each other warily, and only at a respectful distance.
Infections continue to mount with the latest figures showing nearly 200,000 cases in the U.S. resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. Physicians and researchers are groping after a cure. Writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Dr. Jeff Colyer, who recently served as Kansas governor, writes about a promising combination of drugs that pairs the antibiotic marketed as “Z-Pack” with the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine (HC). This was the regimen President Trump repeatedly touted as a “game changer,” despite warnings from health officials that not enough is known about its effects on COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration just issued an emergency-use authorization for use of HC as health officials work to contain the spread of the coronavirus with social distancing measures and expanded testing.
It is hard to find peace of mind in Trump’s daily press conferences. The economy is in shambles with jobless claims exceeding 3.28 million, according to last week’s data, and the stock market gyrating as it registers a sputtering comeback from record lows. The arts and philanthropy are on hold as their lifeblood is the gathering of many people who must now stay apart.
Amid the calamity, some of our fellow citizens think the time has come to buy a gun. The FBI reported an unprecedented number of requests from gun dealers for background checks during the first two months of 2020. Guns require ammunition. Ammo.com just reported that national sales of ammunition increased more than 275 percent in a single week.
Gun hysteria has spread around the country like a pandemic. Long lines are seen outside of California gun stores. In Illinois, which leads the pack in National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) background check initiations, applications stood at an unprecedented 1.6 million in the first two months of the year. Florida ranked third with 236,000 initiations during the same period. The Brady bill, which compelled licensed firearms dealers to require background checks before transferring firearms to unlicensed persons, established the NICS to track criminals and the mentally deranged who might purchase firearms.
Two months ago, Beau LaFave, a conservative member of the Michigan House of Representatives, walked into the state capitol with an AR-15 strapped to his shoulder to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “unconstitutional” gun laws. A photograph of LaFave, smiling, bearded and apparently ready for battle, went viral on Facebook and Twitter. The outcome? Thieves broke into LaFave’s Lansing home and made off with the assault weapon and a .40-caliber handgun. The booty included about $25 in cash lying on a kitchen counter. The weapons were not under lock and key just in case LaFave needed to “access them quickly.”
Florida gun shops are experiencing a boom in gun sales. Alex Elenberg, manager of Charlie’s Armory in Miami, said, “Our sales are up 80 percent, with a huge increase in first-time buyers who are worried about martial law, economic collapse, unemployment, shortages, delinquents roaming the streets.”
Charlie’s Armory is not the only Florida gun shop to notice the spike. In Hialeah, Florida, Samuel Rivera, owner of Gunaholic Custom Gun Shop, disclosed that most of his recent customers were first-time gun owners, senior citizens or women. Explaining this phenomenon, Rivera said, “The women and the elderly are tired of being victims, and afraid of getting robbed at the ATM or scammed at home.” Across Florida, NICS background checks as of last Friday were 500 percent higher than last year on the same date.
Spikes in gun sales tend to be tied to major events. They soared after 9/11, after various hurricanes and national disasters, and after the election of Barack Obama, who gun nuts feared would take their guns away. But gun shop owners say that the coronavirus pandemic has outpaced anything they have seen in recent history. Gun shops around the country are selling out because they cannot get inventory from swamped suppliers. Gun sales are said to be coming so fast that they are overwhelming the NICS system, shorthanded with few staff members working during the crisis.
In the 2008 Heller case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that everyone has a constitutional right to a handgun for self-defense in his or her home. The court could not have conceived of the impact of the coronavirus on gun sales. Americans are now armed to the teeth.
Trump cautions us that when it comes to the coronavirus, “We can’t let the cure be worse than the problem.” He is right. In the depths of affliction, we remind ourselves that the coronavirus crisis shall pass. But the hysteria that came with it will still be with us.
James D. Zirin, a retired partner of the Chicago-headquartered law firm of Sidley Austin, is the author of the recently published book, “Plaintiff in Chief — A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.” He is a former assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.
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