After Lawsuit Brought by Everytown Law on Behalf of West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Court Rules that Barring Property Owners from Asking About the Presence of Guns on Their Property Violates the First Amendment and that Certain Provisions Within the Law are Unconstitutionally Vague
Charleston, WV – In a victory for gun safety, this past Friday a federal court in West Virginia ruled that key provisions of West Virginia’s “Guns in Parking Lots” law are unconstitutional. These provisions prohibited property owners from asking about the presence of firearms on their property or “taking any action” against someone who makes statements about the presence of guns on the property. The United States District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia held that these provisions violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and enjoined the Attorney General of West Virginia from enforcing them against any property owners in the state.
The case was brought by Everytown Law, Gupta Wessler LLP, and Goodwin & Goodwin LLP on behalf of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which seeks to provide a safe haven for women, men and children fleeing abuse. For organizations like the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and its member programs who serve survivors of gun violence, West Virginia’s law denied them a critical tool to ask about the presence of weapons on their private property.
“This important, first-of-its-kind decision shows that the Second Amendment can’t be used to trample other constitutional rights,” said Eric Tirschwell, Executive Director of Everytown Law. “As we have alleged all along, this dangerous law deprived property owners – especially safe havens for those fleeing abusers – of their right to ask questions and make decisions affecting the safety of themselves and those on their own private property. While we do not agree with every aspect of the court’s decision, we are pleased that domestic violence programs will have the right to ask about the presence of deadly weapons on their property, a critical tool in keeping staff and clients safe. This is a victory for public safety.”
“The Coalition’s members and staff have seen firsthand how domestic violence can turn deadly in the presence of a gun,” said Joyce Yedlosky, Team Coordinator at the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “The court’s ruling, allowing all property owners, including our domestic violence programs, to ask about the presence of firearms on their property is an important victory for public safety and ensuring that our Coalition members can keep their clients and staff safe from firearm-related violence and intimidation.”
“This is a victory for gun safety. West Virginians largely support gun ownership, but West Virginians are also practical and respect private property rights, and want to protect vulnerable populations from threats of violence,” said David Fenwick, a lawyer with the team’s West Virginia law firm, Goodwin & Goodwin, LLP. “The court’s decision to strike down key portions of this law is consistent with those values”
Domestic violence and gun violence are inextricably linked: every month, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner and nearly one million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners. Often, the most dangerous point in a domestic violence relationship is when a survivor decides to leave their perpetrator.
In striking down these prohibitions, the court held that the First Amendment protects shelters’ and other private property owners’ right to ask about the presence of firearms on their own property “in order to prepare for and provide for the safety of their customers, employees, and invitees[.]” While West Virginia Attorney General Patrick J. Morrisey argued that the “Guns in Parking Lot” Law protects Second Amendment rights, the court declined to adopt this argument, pointing out that no court has ever recognized that private parties can violate someone’s Second Amendment rights. The court did leave in place provisions of the law requiring that private property owners allow guns to be stored in cars in parking lots.
Last week’s decision comes as the gun lobby continues to push their deadly ‘guns everywhere, for anyone’ agenda in the courts. For decades, the gun lobby has been relentless in their attempts to arm all Americans, advocating for domestic abusers’ ability to possess firearms and defending laws that force guns onto private property. Currently, over twenty states have laws that require property owners to accept the presence of firearms in their parking lots.
Now, all eyes are on the Supreme Court to side with public safety over the extreme demands of the gun lobby in United States v. Rahimi. Rahimi centers on the long-standing federal law prohibiting individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms, which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held unconstitutional this past February. If the Supreme Court does not reverse the Fifth Circuit’s extreme decision, it will upend a critical protection that has been in place for almost 30 years, allowing domestic abusers to possess firearms and putting domestic violence survivors in all 50 states at risk for gun violence.
The Everytown Law team representing West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence includes Eric Tirschwell, Executive Director of Everytown Law, Alla Lefkowitz, Senior Director of Affirmative Litigation, and James Miller, Senior Counsel.