CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A coalition of domestic violence programs has filed a federal lawsuit against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey seeking to nullify what’s known as the parking lot gun bill.
The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on Thursday. The Coalition is represented by Everytown Law, a branch of Everytown for Gun Safety, and two Charleston law firms.
Morrisey spokesman Curtis Johnson said in an email exchange, “At this time, the office has not been served with the complaint. Once the office has been served, we will carefully review and analyze the matter.”
The 2018 bill, HB 4187, now codified in 61-7-14 is officially called the Business Liability and Protection Act. It says no private or public sector employer may prevent an employee, customer or invitee from keeping a firearm properly locked out of sight inside the vehicle from parking in the parking lot.
The act says the property owner may not ask the driver if there is a gun in the vehicle and may not search the vehicle. An employer may not condition employment upon gun ownership or intention to keep a gun locked in the employee’s car.
The Elkview-based coalition has 14 members statewide, including the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center in Morgantown and HOPE Inc. in Fairmont.
The coalition says the act – the suit calls the various provisions the Parking Lot Amendments – violates its property rights and endangers its members’ missions of keeping their clients safe.
The suit says, “The shelters strive not only to protect domestic-violence victims from further physical harm, but also to create an environment in which victims are not retraumatized. Central to this mission is the need to keep weapons out of shelters and off shelter property.
“A domestic violence shelter faces special dangers when someone brings a gun onto its property, whether that person is a known abuser, a shelter resident, or simply someone whom shelter staff doesn’t recognize. It is essential that shelter staff be allowed to protect themselves and their residents by exercising their professional judgment about how best to respond in such situations, whether by investigating, asking the person to remove the gun from the premises, or calling the police.”
Debate on the bill, in 2018 and last session during a failed attempt to amend it, hovered around a basic conflict: private property rights. The parking lot is private property and the owner or renter or lessee has the right to control access. But the gun is private property, properly secured in a vehicle that is also private property. Bill supporters argued that the rights of the possessor of the vehicle trump the rights of the possessor of the parking lot.
In the suit, the plaintiffs allege that the –act violates their First Amendment free speech rights by applying to a narrow class – the possessor of the parking lot – and prohibit a specific message, namely inquiries about the presence of a gun.
They also allege that the act violates their Frist Amendment right to free association by “inhibiting coalition members from establishing safe and secure environments that are free from weapons” and by obstructing “actual and potential clients of coalition members from accessing direct services in an environment that is conducive to healing and recovery.”
And they allege that the act violates their 14th Amendment right to due process. “The coalition members possess fundamental property rights to deny access to, or exclude persons with firearms from, their property. The right to exclude others to protect one’s own personal safety, like the right to physically occupy real property, is among the core natural and inherent rights of property owners, and is a fundamental right implicit in the concept of ordered liberty protected by the 14th Amendment.”
Among the many statistics the suit cites, it notes that West Virginia saw 34 domestic violence related deaths from October 2017 through September 2018, with 42% of them involving a gun. The previous 12 months saw 27 deaths, with 67% involving guns.
The act, the suit says, blocks shelters from preventing abusers and residents from bringing guns on their properties.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to prevent the attorney general from enforcing the disputed provisions of the act.