President Obama has declared the H1N1 or “swine” flu a “national emergency.” Exactly what this will mean to the average citizen remains unclear, as shortages of the swine flu vaccine continue; but it is unlikely that simply declaring an “emergency” will relieve bottlenecks in distribution or cause additional supplies to magically appear. What is perhaps more interesting, will be if governors follow the president’s lead and start declaring state “emergencies” simply because the H1N1 flu virus has appeared in their state. Various “emergency declaration” provisions in state law books or currently being considered by state legislatures (such as in Massachusetts) give the governors extensive, if not downright frightening powers once an “emergency” is declared.
Legislation currently pending in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, would allow the governor to forceably quarantine citizens in the event he declares a “health emergency.” Forced vaccinations could also be ordered, and even forced police entry into private homes and destruction of property; citizens could be jailed for failure to comply. In Georgia, the legislature placed at least some limitations on the powers our governor would enjoy if he were to declare a “health emergency”; limits that would allow the citizens of the Peach State a great deal more freedom from unchecked police powers than would be enjoyed by their counterparts in the Bay State.
In Georgia, for example, the governor must first obtain the agreement of the General Assembly before the still-extensive powers he would enjoy presiding over a self-declared “emergency” or “health emergency” could be exercised. And, reflecting our very different understanding of the Second Amendment in Georgia as opposed to Massachusetts, in Georgia even in a declared emergency the governor could not take away a citizen’s personal firearms if the citizen owned them prior to the declaration. While any such limitation on the right of a law-abiding citizen to possess (or buy) a firearm would be inappropriate — especially in an emergency when by definition the need to protect one’s family or one’s home might be especially critical — at least the Georgia state legislature had the foresight to address the preservation of the Second Amendment under such circumstances.