The U.S. House of Representatives voted on March 17 to renew the lapsed Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, the landmark legislation that created sweeping protections for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. The reauthorization bill includes several provisions that would close what supporters say are significant gaps in federal gun law.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Democrats will need to enlist support from across the aisle to avoid a Republican filibuster. Given longstanding GOP opposition to new gun restrictions, it’s an uphill climb.
The March 17 vote fell largely along party lines, with most House Republicans still unwilling to acquiesce to gun prohibitions that have long been policy priorities for Democrats. They include prohibiting guns for people convicted of misdemeanor stalking, as well as those served with temporary restraining orders. Earlier this year, The Trace published a story about Rosemarie Reilly, a Michigan nursing student whose ex-boyfriend shot and killed her in 2016. Three weeks before she died, Reilly had gotten a protective order, but a judge denied the gun restriction.
When Protective Orders Don’t Protect
Democrats are also trying to use VAWA to keep firearms away from current and former dating partners convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, closing a gap known as the “boyfriend loophole.” Under current federal law, convicted abusers are banned from possessing guns only if their victim is a current or former spouse, someone with whom they lived or had a child, or someone to whom they are a parent or guardian.
The new bill would also compel the Department of Justice to report prospective gun buyers who fail a background check to tribal, state, and local authorities, cracking down on a practice known as “lying and trying.”
Those same measures were first proposed as stand-alone bills years before VAWA expired in 2019, after Republicans balked at including gun prohibitions for stalkers and domestic abusers. (VAWA originally passed in 1994 and must be reauthorized every five years.)
Congressional Democrats never gave up on the gun measures, pushing them on separate tracks year after year to increase their chance of passage. Two of the gun prohibitions included in the latest VAWA package were introduced as separate bills just this month, including a measure put forward by U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan that would close the “boyfriend loophole.”
Dingell told The Trace that pitching these policies in multiple bills simultaneously was a strategic maneuver to increase their chances of passage as a historic spike in gun sales adds fresh urgency to preventing domestic shootings.
“The Violence Against Women Act is a bill that needs to move, and should move,” Dingell said.
VAWA stalled in the then-Republican-dominated Senate in 2019 because of GOP opposition to the boyfriend loophole language and the prohibition on guns for convicted stalkers. Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a domestic violence survivor, offered up her own version of VAWA without the gun prohibitions, expressing concern that the measure would violate suspects’ due process rights. Ernst’s bill failed after critics slammed it as a danger to women’s safety. But Ernst said this week that she plans to re-introduce her measure and was working with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also a Republican, on a provision to protect women on tribal lands.
“What we’re hoping to show is that we have enough Republican support on our bill, and that we’re willing to work with Democrats on this, and hopefully, by combining forces we can come up with the 60 votes needed and pass a modernized bill that will work for the Senate, hopefully then the House,” Ernst told CBS News.
Dingell, who has spoken openly about how her father terrorized her family with a gun, said Democrats have no intention of caving to Republican demands to strip out gun prohibitions. “Why should we, when people’s lives are in danger?” she said.
VAWA, which was championed by then-Senator Joe Biden when it was enacted 27 years ago, established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice. It also allocated $1.6 billion for the prosecution of violent crimes against women and provided avenues for financial compensation for victims. Since then, more than $7 billion in federal grants have been sent to state and local governments for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and survivors.
Republicans and Democrats have both used previous VAWA reauthorization bills to push new policies that they would like to see funded. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers were able to reconcile their differences and push a measure through three times, but reauthorization has been delayed twice in the last decade as Republicans objected to Democratic policy proposals. In 2012, Republicans opposed provisions that extended protections to same-sex couples and allowed undocumented abuse victims to obtain temporary visas, resulting in a yearlong delay in implementing any new policies.
The current logjam is the longest in VAWA’s history, and Dingell says the delay has left groups that combat domestic violence in her home state without critical funding. Programs and shelters in the state have had to raise money from private sources to remain in operation, she said.
The National Rifle Association didn’t respond to questions from The Trace about its stance on the current version of VAWA, but the group told The Detroit News that it opposed the measure, arguing that the legal system sufficiently checked gun possession among dangerous individuals. The NRA also contended that the term “former dating partners” was subjective and could be abused. Jason Ouimet, the NRA’s executive director, accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of adding firearm restrictions to VAWA to make pro-gun legislators appear as if Republicans didn’t care about women.
Some observers have argued that the NRA’s political hold on the GOP has weakened over the past two years, as it’s been saddled by internal scandal and multiple lawsuits, leading it to declare bankruptcy in January. Democrats hope that might improve the odds that VAWA will pass.
If the bill stalls in the Senate, however, Democrats say they plan to focus on pursuing stand-alone bills.
A bill introduced by Dingell to close the boyfriend loophole and ban guns for convicted stalkers has a Republican co-sponsor, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. And Senate Democrats have introduced the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act, named for a Connecticut woman whose husband fatally shot her before she could obtain a permanent order of protection. The act would ban subjects of temporary restraining orders from possessing guns.
The days immediately after an abused person files a restraining order are particularly dangerous, experts say. Twenty percent of people who were killed by their partners despite having restraining orders were killed within two days of the order being issued, according to one study. Gun bans aren’t automatically included in temporary orders of protection in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
Democrats say the threat of domestic violence has grown particularly acute since states started implementing coronavirus-related lockdowns in 2020.
“Gun sales in the United States have surged to record heights since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, and we know that periods of crisis and financial stress only increase the likelihood of domestic violence,” U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said at a news conference unveiling the Lori Jackson bill. “If a person has a temporary restraining order, they should not have access to a gun.”
Additional reporting by Ann Givens