CHARLESTON — Noting that domestic violence murders often involve guns, and that domestic abusers lurk around victims’ shelters, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence has filed a lawsuit over a state law requiring them to allow guns in shelter parking lots.

In 2018, West Virginia lawmakers passed a law requiring employers to allow guns in their parking lots, so long as the gun owner lawfully owned the gun and the vehicle was locked. The law also says that property owners can’t search cars in their parking lots for guns. Supporters of the law had spoken of their rights – gun rights as well as privacy rights.

In the lawsuit, filed last week in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence argues that the law impedes their rights – to make personal decisions about safety, violating the due process clause of the Constitution, and their right to free speech, violating the First Amendment. They noted that the law prevents them from even asking if guns are present in a vehicle.

“The Coalition’s members and their staff know firsthand the link between gun violence and domestic violence,” Joyce Yedlosky, team coordinator of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said in a statement. “It is critical that they be able to make their own decisions about how best to keep their clients and staff safe. 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.”

Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, lead sponsor of the bill in 2018, did not return a call Monday.

The West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence is made up of 14 agencies throughout West Virginia. They operate emergency shelters, where victims and children stay after fleeing abuse, and other offices, where they provide counseling, safety planning and other services. At six locations, they operate visitation and exchange centers where estranged parents can have court-ordered visitation with their children in a secure environment.

“The importance of providing a safe visitation and exchange location cannot be overstated,” the lawsuit states. “Just last year, a man shot and killed his son-in-law during a child custody exchange at a gas station in Craigsville, West Virginia. The man then took his own life. The children witnessed these horrific events.”

The coalition is represented by Everytown Law, Gupta Wessler PLLC and Goodwin & Goodwin LLP. The plaintiffs name West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey as the defendant, seeking to prevent him from enforcing the law.

According to the coalition’s data, which is based on news reports, there were at least 34 domestic-violence-related deaths in the year running from October 2017 through September 2018, with 42 percent involving a firearm. The year before, West Virginia saw at least 27 domestic-violence-related deaths, and 67 percent involved a firearm.

The lawsuit also notes that according to a recent study, of over 500 women who contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline, almost half who said they were stalked also said that their abusers carried guns in their car or on their persons.

The lawsuit includes interviews with directors of West Virginia domestic violence agencies. It states that “coalition members know that one of the most dangerous times for abuse victims is when they attempt to leave their abusers.” The directors also said that abusers were known to lurk around the shelter or other offices.

The lawsuit also states that local agencies work to keep firearms off their property not only to keep their clients and their clients’ children physically safe, but also to reassure them that they are in a safe environment. Firearms are frequently used as a mechanism of control in abusive relationships, the lawsuit notes.

One shelter “recently took in a woman and her young son fleeing an abuser who held his gun to the son’s head as his method of terrorizing and controlling his victim,” the lawsuit states.

One program director said, according to the lawsuit, that the program had served more than 330 victims in the last five years who reported that their abusers had access to weapons. About five years ago, it installed bullet-resistant glass at its shelter.

One program director “recently housed a client whose abuser told the client that he loved his guns more than their kids and would choose to rescue the guns over the children if their house ever caught fire,” the lawsuit states.

Curtis Johnson, a spokesman for Morrisey’s office, said Monday that the office had not been served with the complaint.

“Once the office has been served, we will carefully review and analyze the matter,” he said.

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