The House just overwhelmingly approved a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the United States’ landmark legislation funding programs meant to prevent and prosecute abuse against women. It did so in the face of staunch opposition from the National Rifle Association, which argued that a new provision in the bill barring dating partners convicted of abuse and stalking from owning firearms went too far.
VAWA —which was co-authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Louise Slaughter — first became law in 1994 and has been reauthorized by Congress roughly every five years since. When it initially passed, it was the first comprehensive national law to tackle violence directed at women, including domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Every time VAWA has been reauthorized in the past, lawmakers have sought to strengthen the law and close potential loopholes that older versions may have had. In 2013, lawmakers pushed through changes that would extend the provisions of the law to cover same-sex couples, for example. Lawmakers are seeking to do the same this time around as well — and it’s one of the main reasons Democrats resisted including an extension of the legislation in an omnibus package negotiated to end the shutdown.
In the latest update, sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) — the sole Republican co-sponsor — Democrats are seeking to expand several tenets, like providing additional financial aid for women who’ve experienced domestic violence to stay in their homes and ramping up punishment for cyberbullying. But they also included one that’s drawn the ire of the NRA: banning all intimate partners who’ve been convicted with abuse and stalking from purchasing a firearm. (Currently this ban only applies to a person if he or she was “married to, lived with, or have a child with the victim,” a Fortune report notes.)
“The gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians are intentionally politicizing the Violence Against Women Act as a smokescreen to push their gun control agenda,” NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker told NPR as part of an explanation for the organization’s opposition. The NRA has both urged House members to vote against the bill and said it would publish scores regarding lawmakers’ final votes on it.
Democrats have resolutely stood behind this expansion and argued that closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” is vital to ensure that the law effectively protects women. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she didn’t think the NRA’s pushback would affect the law’s chances of getting through the lower chamber.
“There’s very discrete provisions that relate to protecting women’s safety. And they’re against it,” Pelosi said, according to Roll Call. “I don’t see that it has much impact on the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives.”
In all, VAWA has provided more than $7 billion to grant programs that do everything from helping fund rape crisis centers to strengthening law enforcement resources aimed at prosecuting crimes against women, since its inception. Now, its reauthorization will be considered by the Senate, which is working on its own version of the legislation.
Republicans in the Senate could see the firearms provision as a sticking point
Closing the “boyfriend loophole” might not have stopped VAWA’s reauthorization in the House, but the Republican-controlled upper chamber could be a different story.
House Republicans had already expressed concerns about updates to the legislation and sought to advance their own “clean” version of the bill, which would extend its funding without any add-ons. Since that effort has failed, the attention turns to Republicans in the Senate, who may push a similar version.
“A modest extension of this law is consistent with how this matter has been handled in the past,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously said while Republicans were pushing to add a “clean” extension of the bill to the legislation reopening the government earlier this year. (Democrats rejected that effort, so the law’s funding actually expired on February 15, though a Democratic aide told Roll Call at the time that this would have little impact in the near term.)
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) are working on their own bipartisan version of the reauthorization, though it’s not yet clear how many of the House provisions would also be included in it.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) outlined the importance of the firearms provision in a floor speech earlier this week, highlighting the devastating risks posed by a gun in instances of domestic violence:
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on average, nearly 20 people every minute, 20 people every minute, are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. That is a tragedy and a crisis. One-in-four women experience severe intimate partner physical violence, and one-in-seven have been stalked by an intimate partner to the point at which she felt very fearful, or believed that she or someone close to her would be harmed or killed. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk – hear me – increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent.
These risks are a major factor senators will have to consider as they weigh what their version of the bill will look like. If their take winds up being different from the House’s, they will go to conference, where lawmakers from both chambers will try to seek middle ground.