The United States House of Representatives voted on Thursday to reauthorise a 25-year-old law that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence, despite complaints by Republicans that Democrats were politicising the popular law by expanding gun control.
The bill to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act includes a provision making it easier to take away guns from violent offenders even if they are not a spouse or domestic partner. The amendment closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” by barring those convicted of abusing, assaulting or stalking a current or former dating partner from buying or owning a firearm.
“We’re closing dangerous loopholes in our laws that, right now, allow those who’ve been convicted of stalking or dating violence to obtain firearms,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), a gun-rights lobbying organisation, opposed the House measure and urged Republicans to vote against it.
“It’s a shame that some in the gun control community treat the severity of domestic violence so trivially that they are willing to use it as a tool to advance a political agenda,” NRA spokeswoamn Jennifer Baker said in a statement to media earlier this week.
The House approved the bill, 263-158, sending it to the Senate. Thirty-three Republicans joined with Democrats to support the bill. Congressman Collin Peterson was the only Democrat to oppose it.
On April 1, Republicans in the Senate attempted to advance a short-term extension of the law without the new gun ownership restriction. They added a renewal of the old Violence Against Women Act to a $13.45bn disaster aid spending bill. Democrats, seeking more aid for Puerto Rico, voted to delay the spending bill.
Republican Senator Joni Ernst has said she would work with Democrats including Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee to try to find a compromise.
The Violence Against Women Act allocates $1.6bn a year to investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women and provides for the Office on Violence Against Women within the US Justice Department. It first became law in 1994 with bipartisan support and was reauthorised in 2000, 2005 and 2013. It lapsed again in 2018, triggering jockeying between House and Senate leaders over its renewal.
“It’s disappointing. This one has been a bipartisan bill, but they want to turn it into a partisan thing,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.
Under current federal law, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose their guns if they are currently or formerly married to their victim, live with the victim, have a child together or are a victim’s parent or guardian. The proposed amendment would extend the provision to stalkers and current or former dating partners.
If politicians are trying to save lives, “Why would you not close a simple loophole that says if someone has been convicted of domestic violence or stalking that they not have access to a gun?” asked Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.
Gun-control advocates praised the House action.
“My husband tried to kill me because he had easy access to a gun,” Lisette Johnson, a survivor of a 2009 shooting who is now a gun safety activist, said in a statement issued by Everytown. “If he hadn’t had a gun, I don’t believe he would have tried to kill me – and then himself – any other way. We can’t deny the deadly connection between domestic violence and gun violence.”
Robin Lloyd, managing director of a gun-control group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, said up to half of all domestic violence victims are abused by a dating partner, rather than a spouse or live-in boyfriend.
On average, 50 women are shot and killed every month in the US by their husbands, boyfriends or intimate partners, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that supports the measure.
Lloyd called the gun-control amendment “truly a life-saving provision”, adding that gaps in federal law allowing abusers and stalkers to obtain guns are “a key driver of the staggering levels of lethal violence against women in the US”. An estimated 4.5 million women have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner, and nearly one million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner, Lloyd said.
With additional reporting by William Roberts in Washington, DC.