By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON - The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence is asking a federal judge to prevent Attorney General Patrick Morrisey from enforcing a law that requires private businesses to allow employees and visitors to have guns in their vehicles parked on those businesses' property.
The coalition seeks to have Senior Status U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver to find the 2018 law unconstitutional and issue an injunction to stop its enforcement, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia on Thursday.
"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," attorneys said in the lawsuit. "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."
The coalition is represented by attorneys from Everytown Law, Charleston firm Goodwin and Goodwin, and Gupta Wessler PLLC, based in Washington, D.C.
The West Virginia Legislature adopted the law, titled "Business Liability Protection Act," during the 2018 regular legislative session, and Gov. Jim Justice signed it later that March.
The law requires businesses to allow employees and visitors to keep guns in their vehicles, and it prohibits property owners and businesses from taking action against a person who brings a gun onto the business's property.
Businesses also cannot use the fact that a person does or does not have a license to carry a firearm as a condition of their employment.
Businesses that violate the law face up to $5,000 in fines per violation, according to the law.
In the lawsuit, the coalition, which includes 14 licensed domestic violence programs that operate shelters in West Virginia, said the law violates shelters' constitutional rights because it is "vaguely worded, and because it inhibits their ability to protect their own safety (and the safety of their clients) on their own property."
"To be clear, the shelters do not challenge the ability of anyone to keep and bear a firearm for lawful purposes inside their home, or even in public," attorneys write in the lawsuit. "Instead, they bring this suit to protect their own ability to ensure the safety of themselves, their employees and their clients - on their own property."
When members of the House considered the law in 2018, supporters said it protected individuals' personal property and Second Amendment rights.
During a debate in the House of Delegates on Feb. 27, 2018, Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said the House was being tone-deaf to pass the bill less than two weeks after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
She said the bill falsely presumes that the Second Amendment is more important than any other portion of the Bill of Rights, according to a Charleston Gazette-Mail report at the time.
In a news release Thursday, Joyce Yedlosky, team coordinator for the coalition, said it was critical employees at domestic abuse shelters be able to make their own decisions about how best to keep their clients and staff safe.
"The Coalition's members and their staff know firsthand the link between gun violence and domestic violence," Yedlosky said. "By threatening them with liability, this law deprives shelters of an important tool they use to keep survivors of domestic violence safe from firearm-related violence and intimidation."