LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the second time this week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has ordered gun shops to close, a move that challenges the county legal counsel's finding that the stores are essential businesses that should remain open during the coronavirus crisis.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous with 10 million residents, enacted a stay-at-home order last week that required all nonessential businesses to close to slow the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday, Villanueva ordered the shops closed. Panic-buying that produced long lines at the shops was worrisome from a public safety standpoint, he said.

Soon after that, the county counsel and the health department said the shops are among those considered essential under the county's stay-at-home order that closed many businesses and urged all residents to stay home as much as possible.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom was asked during a news conference if he believes gun shops are essential. He demurred, saying it was up to sheriffs to determine that in their jurisdictions.

In issuing his closure order Thursday morning, Villanueva cited the governor's executive order on statewide closures during the crisis as stipulating gun stores are not essential. However, the order does not explicitly mention those businesses.

Villanueva said the shops may no longer sell to the general public but may still supply security guard companies. Anyone who already has purchased a gun and possesses a valid safety certificate can pick up their firearms, he said in a statement.

Deputies have not needed to issue citations yet to enforce the order, the sheriff said Thursday afternoon during a news conference.

Gun groups are exploring legal challenges to the sheriff's order.

"You can’t say part of the business is essential and part of it isn’t,” said Chuck Michel, an attorney for the National Rifle Association-affiliated California Rifle and Pistol Association. “Can Best Buy sell refrigerators but not PlayStations? Can Home Depot sell appliances but not flowers?”

Michel said Villanueva's decision comes at the expense of individuals.

“What he’s deeming nonessential is people who want to buy firearms to protect their families,” he said, adding that “when the veneer of civilization may crack, they want to be ready.”

The sheriff appears to be trying to carve out a legal middle ground by not in effect seizing individuals’ already purchased firearms and by allowing the stores to serve security guard companies, said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California.

“We are into new territory that has not been tread before,” Paredes said. Gun groups are asking the federal government to declare that “gun stores are essential businesses, and it will resolve it for everybody and make it clear what we can and cannot do.”

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said while she personally thinks gun stores are not essential businesses, the conflicting findings by Villanueva and the county likely need to get sorted out by a judge.

“Let them go to court about it,” she said.

The closure only applies to the county's unincorporated areas and 42 cities that contract with the sheriff's department for law enforcement.

In the city of Los Angeles, officials have deemed gun shops to be nonessential and must close, according to City Attorney Mike Feuer. He said only “life-sustaining” businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, can be open.

“There's nothing essential about being able to purchase a new handgun,” he said.

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Thompson reported from Sacramento.

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