ALBANY -- The National Rifle Association has initiated a legal challenge to New York's decision to close gun stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nation's largest organization representing gun owners, in a move first reported Thursday night by the New York Times, is taking issue with the Cuomo administration's decision to classify gun shops as "non-essential" businesses that cannot operate until further notice.

The N.R.A. has also commenced similar litigation in California. There, the state has allowed counties to determine whether gun stores are essential or non-essential.

According to the group, consumer demand for guns has spiked amid the public health crisis, with an estimated 2.5 million firearms sold last month, the highest sale volume ever for the industry.

Cuomo administration officials offered no immediate comment on the legal action other than to note many categories of businesses are now closed in New York due to the state's effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Those who disagree with the declaration that gun shops are non-essential include Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. Last week, Ortt wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, urging him to reverse course on the decision.

Ortt said he believes many New Yorkers want to have access to firearms to defend their homes and businesses from interlopers looking to steal cash and valuable property.

"While protecting public health is the first order of business now, we should still try to maintain our freedoms within reason," the senator said.

He said he gun sales could be arranged to respect social distancing edicts, with buyers going to stores after making appointments rather than having would-be purchasers bunched together inside a shop.

Among businesses that have been closed are bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and movie theaters. This week, Cuomo declared people should not be playing basketball in parks because they could be exposed to the virus and then spread it to members of their family and their neighbors.

Among businesses that remain open are real estate sales offices, media companies, supermarkets, convenience stores and liquor stores.

The governor's brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, is among those who has tested positive. On Thursday, via a video telephone call, Chris Cuomo discussed the symptoms that have kept him in his home basement during a dialogue with the governor at the latter's pandemic briefing.

The N.R.A. has had a chilly relationship with New York state government for years.

The group has vehemently criticized the gun control measure known as the New York SAFE Act, signed by Cuomo in early 2013, several weeks after numerous children and school staffers were massacred at a public school in Connecticut by a mentally-disturbed young man.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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