The U.S. House of Representatives voted to renew the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Thursday, adding a new provision that closes the "boyfriend loophole" by extending existing gun restrictions to include current and former dating partners convicted of abuse or stalking charges. The vote was 263 to 158, with 33 Republicans approving the measure.
Right now, the law only prohibits firearm purchases for people who are "married to, lived with, or have a child with the victim" and who have been convicted of an abuse felony or are under a restraining order. This provision would extend the law to unmarried partners and misdemeanor convictions of domestic abuse and stalking.
The vote comes after months of partisan fighting over the landmark domestic violence bill, which Congress allowed to lapse earlier this year. VAWA, co-authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Louise Slaughter, became law in 1994, and Congress has reauthorized it around every five years. It is the first federal law that recognizes domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. The current version of the bill, the biggest expansion since 2013, also strengthens protections for transgender and Indigenous women. The main authors of this version are Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, and California Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed the boyfriend-loophole provision, agitating Republican lawmakers to vote against it and effectively making them decide between protecting women and the powerful gun lobby. The NRA says it supports VAWA, but not the gun restriction. "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.
"It's absolutely absurd and obscene that gun lobbyists write our nation's laws, especially those protecting women," Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, told Refinery29.
Closing the boyfriend loophole is crucial considering how many women are abused and murdered by dating partners in the U.S., and advocates say it's not about restricting guns — it's about saving women's lives. "The NRA has spent a lot of money to create this distraction, making this about them as opposed to protecting the lives of women," Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, who represents Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District, said on the House floor on Thursday. "Over 50% of women murdered in 2017 were slain by an intimate partner. 82% of homicide victims targeted by intimate partners are women. The weapon of choice in over half of female homicides? A firearm. This is an opportunity to support both saving the lives of women and responsible gun ownership."
The statistics on domestic violence, which increases the risk of homicide, are equally harrowing. "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," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a floor speech earlier this week. "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%." Women between the ages of 18 and 24 are more vulnerable to abuse by an intimate partner.
Because we don't have adequate federal laws, women in the U.S. are 21 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries, and 19% of domestic violence involves a firearm. The new VAWA provision would further protect women by closing the "stalker loophole"; stalking is a major predictor of intimate-partner violence and homicide. And, it would strengthen enforcement by alerting state and local police when an abuser fails a background check, which allows them to intervene before he can do further harm.
Scanlon, a former pro-bono attorney and legal services coordinator working on behalf of abuse survivors, pointed out that six Republicans cosponsored legislation that would have closed the boyfriend loophole last year, and 23 states have enacted laws to prevent abusers from getting their hands on firearms.
In her speech, Scanlon said that within the past week, in her own district, the following incidents occurred: Stephanie, a young mother, was murdered by her ex-husband with an AR-15-style rifle at a convenience store when the two were supposed to meet to exchange custody of their 6-year-old son. After an incident three years ago, he had been charged with harassment and making terroristic threats, and Stephanie got a Protection from Abuse order. Another woman was asleep with her three children when her ex-boyfriend broke into her house and shot her in front of her 5-year-old. The only reason she didn't die is because his gun jammed when he fired a second time. She, too, had a Protection from Abuse order against him.
It's absolutely absurd and obscene that gun lobbyists write our nation's laws, especially those protecting women.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action
Refinery29 is continuously tracking the frequent and largely preventable attacks on women by their current and former partners. One of the main culprits is the sheer number of guns in the wrong hands; there are more guns than people in this country and 3% of people own half the firearms. It is, in particular, white men who are stockpiling guns. They are more likely to be gun owners than any other group and more likely to feel emotionally attached to their firearms. A Harvard University study found that many of these men are insecure about the job market, less educated, and "beset by racial fears," and that they turn to guns to feel more powerful. President Donald Trump's stoking fears about immigrants and spreading dangerous rhetoric about women gives them a security they didn't have in the past.
This underscores the connection between gun violence and the rise of white nationalism: A 2016 study found that among white people, racial prejudice is a predictor of opposition to gun-safety laws. "Anytime a group in power thinks they're losing power, they try to pit minorities against each other," Gabby Richards, Scanlon's communications director, told Refinery29. "But just because one person becomes more equal, doesn't mean you become less."
Richards praised this current version of VAWA for its intersectionality, a mode of policy-making she said the freshman Congresswomen have helped introduce to Congress. Too often, she said, lawmakers look at policy issues with tunnel vision; case in point, the way Republicans are seeing attempts to close the boyfriend loophole as an attack on the second amendment.
"Anytime that there's an issue that is not just one-dimensional and touches on several policy points, it's almost as if you're forced to pick and choose," she said. "You shouldn't have to pick and choose when you have the chance to address several issues in this bill. In VAWA, we have the ability to protect women, to pass a form of common-sense gun policy, and also to extend protections to the trans community."
The reason politicians consistently vote against human lives when bills like this come up is the NRA's big-money presence in politics. That's why H.R. 1, the sweeping anti-corruption bill, was first order of business for the Democrats in the 116th Congress. "If you look at how much money the NRA has spent on buying seats in Congress, well, the story writes itself," said Richards.
Democrats have brought proposals to the table to close the boyfriend loophole in the past that haven't gone anywhere, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar's Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act. "The NRA is wrong to oppose this provision, they are wrong to oppose this entire bill, it shows where they are when it comes to safety and when it comes to protecting women, and we will fight to keep it in this bill," Klobuchar, a 2020 presidential candidate, said this week.
It's unclear whether the Senate will vote on the bill with the gun-safety provision, but Sens. Joni Ernst and Dianne Feinstein are reportedly working on their own version of the VAWA reboot. Like Republicans in Congress, White House spokesperson Judd Deere has said, "The White House supports a clean extension of VAWA."