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Judge: Lawsuit over West Virginia gun bill can proceed

CHARLESTON — A federal judge said Wednesday a lawsuit brought by an organization representing domestic violence victims challenging a 2018 law prohibiting businesses from banning guns from parking lots can move forward.

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver denied a motion brought by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Aug. 5, 2019, to dismiss a case challenging the law from the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The coalition filed a complaint on June 6, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia seeking an injunction against House Bill 4187, also called the Business Liability Protection Act.

The bill, which was passed by the West Virginia Legislature on March 10, 2018, and went into effect 90 days later, prohibits property owners or lessees of real property from prohibiting gun owners from possessing their firearms in their parked vehicles. It also prohibits the hiring or firing of employees based on their possession of firearms.

The Coalition Against Domestic Violence filed its lawsuit a year later, alleging the law violates the property rights of the coalition and its 14 affiliates across the state and puts its clients in potential danger. The coalition is represented by Everytown Law, the legal arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group advocating for more stringent gun control measures. Michael Bloomberg, a former New York City mayor and Democratic candidate for president, is a major financier.

“Under the law in question, private property owners can’t choose to keep guns off their property, no matter what their reasons are,” said Eric Tirschwell, managing director for Everytown Law. “It’s truly extreme, and it directly affects our clients’ ability to protect their staff, residents and visitors.”

The coalition alleges the law violates the constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of association under the 1st Amendment, and 14th Amendment rights for substantive and procedural due process.

The law empowers the attorney general to enforce the provisions of the Business Liability Protection Act. The attorney general can seek injunctions against businesses on behalf of customers and employees and seek civil penalties up to $5,000 for each violation.

In its arguments for dismissal, the attorney general’s office said the coalition doesn’t have standing to bring a lawsuit because the law has never been used against the coalition. The attorney general’s office said it had no intention to enforce the law unless it receives a complaint. In his order, Copenhaver wrote the coalition still had standing to bring a lawsuit.

“(The attorney general’s) statement is not enough to remove (coalition) members’ legitimate fear that they will be penalized for applying their policies,” Copenhaver wrote. “…There is nothing to suggest that the defendant will not enforce the statute if a member shelter adheres to its existing policy and a citizen files a complaint. Thus, the (coalition) has alleged an injury in fact.”

“Even though the statute has not yet been enforced, the chilling effect in this case is objectively reasonable for members who have changed policies pertaining to the presence of firearms in parking lots after the amendments were enacted,” Copenhaver continued.

According to Everytown Law, 20 states have similar parking lot laws, though it argues West Virginia’s law is overly broad, lacks exemptions and puts a burden on the rights of property owners. With the lawsuit moving forward, Everytown Law is preparing to make its case on behalf of the Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“We look forward to showing the court how this law tramples the rights of property owners across West Virginia, including the rights to ask questions and make decisions that directly affect the safety of everyone on their property,” Tirschwell, said.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said Friday that they received the ruling Wednesday and would review the ruling and determine next steps.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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