WINCHESTER — The city ban on carrying guns at some public places and events is targeted in a lawsuit.
The suit asserts the ban criminalizes the plaintiffs’ state constitutional right to carry guns and endangers them. The suit doesn’t challenge banning guns at government buildings, but focuses on outdoor settings.
“In public streets and parks, plaintiff’s best defense against a potential threat is to possess firearms, and to be personally responsible for their own defense,” attorney Gilbert Ambler of Winchester wrote in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Winchester Circuit Court. “Indeed, the right to bear arms is closely tied to the right of self-protection.”
In a party-line vote in January, the Democratically-controlled Virginia legislature approved a law allowing local governments to ban guns at government buildings and government-run public places such as parks. About 100 of 120 people who commented in person or in emails or voicemails when Winchester proposed the ban expressed opposition to it. Nonetheless, the Democratically-controlled City Council on Feb. 9 approved the ban in a 7-2 party-line vote.
Ammunition and guns are now prohibited at all Winchester government buildings including Rouss City Hall, the Creamery Building and the War Memorial Building in Jim Barnett Park. The ban also applies to city parks and certain public rights-of-way connected to city-permitted events including the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.
The suit was filed on behalf of an open-carry advocate, two Winchester business owners, a city gun store, a Winchester resident who likes to carry a gun in city parks for protection, and four gun rights groups. The plaintiffs are:
Brandon Angel, a Kearneysville, West Virginia, resident and advocate of openly carrying guns in public. Virginia is one of 31 states that allow open carry, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, although the state has some restrictions on openly carrying in public places. In the lawsuit, Angel said he may want to hold a pro-gun rally in Winchester at which he would openly carry. He said he is being “irreparably harmed” by the ban.
Gun Owners of America Inc., a Springfield-based gun rights group that says it has over 2 million members. Its website says the nonprofit group is considered the “no compromise” gun lobbying group.
Gun Owners Foundation, a group that provides gun education and legal support to law-abiding gun owners involved in shootings or other gun-related incidents.
Shannon Nuckols, owner of Mac Shack Express, a food truck that operates in Winchester. Nuckols is a concealed pistol permit holder who said she has previously worked at city festivals. Nuckols said she has been a robbery victim. She said she is vulnerable because she often carries large sums of cash from business sales and is one of the last people to leave festivals when few people are around. “I desire to carry a firearm with me in my food truck while I work to defend myself and my customers,” she said.
Mark B. Stickley, owner of Runners Retreat at 135 N. Loudoun St. on the Loudoun Street Mall. Stickley, who has a concealed carry pistol permit, said he fears arrest if he carries his gun to and from work near a city event where guns are banned.
Stonewall Arms, a gun store at 2426 Valley Ave. Andrew John “A.J.” Williams, store general manager, said he regularly carries ammo and guns through Winchester for business purposes and fears arrest if he carries near a city event.
U.S. Law Shield of Virginia, the state branch of a Houston, Texas-based for-profit company that legally defends law-abiding gun owners involved in shootings and other gun incidents.
Virginia Citizens Defense League, a nonprofit gun rights group that says it has tens of thousands of state members.
Loren Wilkerson, a city resident, mother of three and pistol permit holder, who said she regularly carried a concealed gun for self defense in city parks, park buildings and when shopping in the city before the ban. Wilkerson said a gun is “the best tool with which I can defend myself and my loved ones.”
The suit names the city and Winchester Police Chief John R. Piper. Because it involves pending litigation, Piper on Thursday said he wouldn’t comment on the suit. Regarding the ban, he wouldn’t comment on whether metal detectors or signage will be used to prevent guns from being carried into events because the events haven’t occurred yet.
However, Ambler wrote in the suit that metal detectors are likely to be used and asserted their use constitutes an “unreasonable search and is therefore grievous and oppressive.” Unreasonable searches are a violation of the Fourth Amendment as well as the Virginia constitution, but Ambler said in an interview that the suit is only about purported violations of the plaintiffs’ state constitutional rights.
The lawsuit said the state legislature’s approval of gun bans has resulted in a confusing patchwork of laws around Virginia. “Many visitors to Winchester will be caught unaware, making their visit to the city a risky proposition,” Ambler wrote.
Besides saying the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights were being violated, Ambler also invoked religion in the suit.
“The protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not a government-bestowed right enshrined in an outdated document, but rather the commonwealth’s recognition of a pre-existing right with which Virginians were endowed by their Creator, and operates as a fixed limitation on the power of state or local government to enact legislation affecting firearms,” Ambler wrote. “The city of Winchester has restricted possession of firearms in areas where self-protection, the most basic protection ensured by the right to keep and bear arms, is most needed.”