The House passed VAWRA in April 2019 with bipartisan support 263 to 158. Then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sat on the bill.
Despite the House of Representatives passing hundreds of bills—many of them with bipartisan support—the GOP-led Senate continues to be the place good legislation goes to die. Here’s a deep dive at one that impacts countless survivors across the country.
In the past, intimate partner and domestic violence were often considered personal matters best dealt within families, especially when it occurred between a husband and wife. This changed with the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which ushered in a mandate to guarantee victims of domestic and sexual violence the right to “safety, justice and autonomy.” It has been routinely, easily reauthorized several times since then—until now.
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The original VAWA legislation marked a pivotal shift in how law enforcement treated domestic or partner violence by utilizing resources, training, and policies to make change.
Since 1994, Congress has reauthorized the VAWA three times, in 2000, 2005, and 2013. In addition, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), a Department of Justice agency, was created in 2002 to lead the implementation of VAWA grant programs. These programs have grown to include providing legal assistance and funding for research on gender-based and domestic violence.
Though the programs have evolved over time, the underlying principle remains. “Everybody has a basic human right to live a life free of violence and abuse,” the OVW wrote in the 2016 report “Twenty Years of the Violence Against Women Act: Dispatches from the Field.”
In its latest iteration, called the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019 or VAWRA, the original legislation is expanded with key measures around firearms and new protections to foster housing stability and improve economic security for survivors.
Those measures reflect years of research since the original act was passed. Studies have found that women in the US are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other high-income countries; female intimate partners are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined; and the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500%. The bill proposes several restrictions aimed at increasing survivors’ economic security and reducing abusers’ access to guns.
Closing the Boyfriend Loophole
One provision (Sec 802) in the latest installment would expand prohibitions preventing stalkers and individuals subject to court orders from possessing a firearm. Attorney Theresa Prichard, associate director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, explains that the measure would also correct an existing blindspot in the older law called “the boyfriend loophole.”
“In cases where the parties aren’t married, [the new law] would require those respondents who have an injunction issued against them to surrender their firearms,” Prichard said. This is especially important when someone is trying to leave or separate from an abusive partner, she continued, because “the potential for violence is so much greater when an abused partner is trying to leave. And obviously, having a gun in the situation is an extra level of danger.”
Similarly, the housing and other economic measures reflect two decades of research showing financial barriers are often the most difficult and deciding factors in whether someone escapes a violent situation. As reported in a retrospective on the impact of VAWA programs, “before someone decides that they are going to break free from a violent relationship, many times they want to know where they are going to go.”
According to advocates and survivors, cultural barriers also pose a challenge, as does the difficulty of navigating multiple, siloed systems while experiencing trauma. To combat this, the legislation includes funding for coordinated, community-based responses that include housing and healthcare components.
The consensus across systems is that a holistic, coordinated, and culturally aware response tends to be significantly more effective. This holistic approach is endorsed by the nonpartisan and nongovernmental National Taskforce to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, which has urged the Senate to pass the bill.
Finally, the reauthorization act contains a nondiscrimination provision so providers who are receiving VAWA funding can’t discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous people, and other vulnerable populations. This will help to ensure that everyone who needs help can access it.
“Given what we know about violence and vulnerable populations being more at risk of experiencing violence, of course, we definitely want to see very strong protections in there,” Prichard noted.
And Yet the Bill Sits Untouched in the Senate
It’s been more than a year and a half since the bill moved to Mitch McConnell’s Senate, where the powerful gun lobby has stalled attempts to reauthorize the legislation. Chiefly concerned with blocking even incremental gun control measures, and less about the potential deaths of stalking and domestic violence survivors, the National Rifle Association warned lawmakers that voting for the bill would impact their NRA ratings.
“Permanently losing a fundamental civil right for a misdemeanor conviction is virtually unheard of outside the Second Amendment context,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told Jezebel, calling the bill “a smokescreen for its real goal—banning firearms ownership.” That, of course, is not the intent of the bill.
Senate Republicans also introduced their own version of a bill to reauthorize VAWA, but that, too, has floundered.
Meanwhile, gun sales soared this year, along with cases of domestic violence. It’s a “pandemic within a pandemic” that Senate Republicans have the power and responsibility, but not the will, to address.