Congress Could Protect Domestic Violence Victims—but It Loves Guns More

The legislation that helps victims—the Violence Against Women Act—remains in limbo after it expired in 2018. The election could change that.

[PHOTO: An illustration of a scared woman of color. Behind her is a shadow of a person grabbing at her.]
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women has experienced "contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime." Shutterstock

Hiding behind the devastating COVID-19 pandemic is another health crisis, one that has thrived in the shadows. Domestic violence is a centuries-old issue that has grown in the last year, and yet the government still can’t settle on what it means to protect women.

Without question, domestic violence is an epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 women has experienced “contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.” (And nearly 1 in 10 men have reported the same, according to the CDC.)

Before the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, protections were pretty bleak. Imagine living in a time with nowhere to turn after being abused—a time where women’s shelters didn’t exist, and doctors once referred to “wife beating” as a form of “therapy,” according to Time.

Take New York state in the ’60s—domestic violence cases only qualified for family court with civil proceedings, which means a man would receive more punishment for hitting a stranger than for hitting his wife. In New York, domestic violence only became grounds for divorce in 1966—and only if the plaintiff could establish a “sufficient” number of beatings had taken place, according to a 2008 timeline from the New York Human Resources Administration. Whatever “sufficient” means, we don’t want to know.

The decades after the onset of the feminist movement saw the slow development of court cases, legislation, and government task forces. But until 26 years ago, there was still no law to classify domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes and provide federal resources to aid survivors.

Enter: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), legislation that could be deeply impacted by the next election cycle. Oh, and we should mention—it expired in 2018.

About VAWA

VAWA was passed in 1994 in response to the needs of domestic violence victims. According to the American Bar Association, the bill was created to provide tools to hold offenders accountable and collect data so the government could learn more about the crimes.

With bipartisan support, including sponsorship by then-Sen. Joe Biden, President Bill Clinton signed the bill in 1994. Shortly after, the National Domestic Violence Hotline was formed.

VAWA also established the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), which provides grants for domestic violence shelters, legal support, sexual assault hotlines, training for victim advocates, training for judges and prosecutors on gender-based crimes, and crisis centers. According to the OVW, more than $9 billion in federal grants has been distributed.

Reauthorizing VAWA

VAWA came with a caveat: It is meant to be reauthorized every five years to better meet the needs of survivors. Each renewal has expanded and strengthened the original act.

In 2000, the reauthorization included $3.3 billion in financing for law enforcement and for shelters, according to the New York Times. It also ushered in protections for elderly women and women living with disabilities. The 2005 update improved housing protections for survivors, increased stalking penalties, and added cyberstalking at the outset of social media.

The act expired in 2011 because of objections from conservatives in Congress. The Times identified “visas for abused undocumented immigrants, funds for victims in same-sex relationships and provisions strengthening American Indian courts,” as the sticking points for Republicans. After losing the female vote in 2012, Republicans felt pressure to move forward, according to the Times, and in 2013, House Republicans allowed a vote on the bill.

President Barack Obama signed the latest reauthorization, in 2013, which included nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people who had been excluded from the 1994 act. Native American women abused on tribal lands by non-Indigenous men and undocumented immigrants were also extended protections.

The enhanced VAWA also improved housing rights for survivors, and required institutions of higher learning to report data on gender-based crimes, like violence and rape on campus, to the federal government.

Why VAWA expired—again

[Photo: Supporters of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Task Force to End Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Against Women hold a rally for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) outside the US Capitol.]
Jim Watson/AFP/GettyImages
History repeats itself, and much like in 2011, VAWA’s reauthorization faces opposition. Conservative members of the Senate have failed to get behind the latest reauthorization bill after it passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2019. This time, the sticking point is gun control.

You don’t have to be a policy expert to understand that guns in the hands of abusers make intimate partner violence even more lethal. According to research by Everytown, 53 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner each month. “Nearly one million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners,” the report says. And the CDC has found that nearly half of murdered women die at the hands of a current or former romantic partner.

The latest VAWA reauthorization bill—if the gun lobby ever lets it pass—would fix a gap in the law that allows many abusers seeking firearms to slip through a flaw in the system: the boyfriend loophole.

The boyfriend loophole

The boyfriend loophole lets people convicted of a misdemeanor offense for stalking, abusing, or assaulting a dating partner retain the ability to buy a firearm.

Who’s banned from buying a gun? An abuser convicted of a misdemeanor charge who has been married to, lived with, or shared a child with the victim.

Who can buy a gun scot-free? Any intimate partner charged with a misdemeanor offense who doesn’t check those boxes—which is quite a gaping hole. And guess what makes it five times more likely for an abused woman to be killed? An abuser’s access to a gun.

Some states have taken their own steps to protect victims of intimate partner violence. But this has not been enough to save the nearly three women who die from domestic violence per day in the United States.

As the nation’s largest gun lobby, the National Rifle Association unsurprisingly opposed closing the boyfriend loophole.

According to the Times, NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker called the closing of the boyfriend loophole a “poison pill” intended to portray Republicans who vote against the VAWA reauthorization as “anti-woman.”

Criticizing stalking offenses she feels are “too broad and ripe for abuse,” Baker condemned the bill. Yet three-quarters of female intimate partner homicide victims had been stalked by their intimate partner, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Nearly two years after the law’s expiration, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) still refusing to allow a vote, VAWA’s future is uncertain.

The future of VAWA

Women’s safety is just one more thing on the ballot in this election.

While VAWA remains in limbo, that doesn’t mean its effect has disappeared.

“Expiration of the appropriations authorizations in VAWA pertains to the grant programs alone and not to the other legal improvements that have accompanied these authorizations since 1994,” according to the OVW. And Congress can and has continued to appropriate funding through the 2020 fiscal year, so funding hasn’t lapsed—yet.

Right now, VAWA’s reauthorization depends on bipartisan agreement. But if the Democrats flip the Senate in this election, the bill would likely make it to the House and Senate floor with the help of Democratic majority leaders.

The Biden campaign has said reauthorizing VAWA will be a top priority in Biden’s first 100 days if he wins the presidency. As the original author and sponsor of the 1994 bill and the vice president responsible for appointing the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, his track record makes that no surprise.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s campaign touts his “promises kept” on the economy, trade agreements, national security, and more. Violence against women isn’t on that list.