Although the latest version of “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act” (VAWA) just passed the House, 172 GOP legislators voted against it because it expanding firearm restrictions against abusers or stalkers, and added protections for gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Now, it’s off to the Senate and a fight to get to 60 votes. Call your senators and be sure your friends and family in RED places call theirs.
Minimal Script for DEM senators: I’m calling from [zip code] to ask Sen. [___] to strongly support the H.R. 1620 – The “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.”
Minimal Script for GOP senators: I’m calling from [zip code] to ask Sen. [___] to support the H.R. 1620 – The “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.” I understand that 172 GOP representatives voted “NO” on this important bill in the House, and I want the Senator to know that their reasoning wasn’t acceptable to me. As [a woman] and/or [the wife/husband, son/daughter, sister/brother, child/father/mother] of a woman],
- I expect Sen. [___] to vote “YES” to close the “boyfriend loophole” that denies some victims equal access to the protections of the federal law against domestic violence.
- I expect Sen. [___] to vote “YES” to show that [he/she] values women’s lives over guns when judges issue emergency ex parte domestic violence protective orders.
- I expect the Sen. [___] to vote “YES” to prohibiting guns to those convicted of stalking, whether charged as a misdemeanor or felony, due the crime’s strong relationship to future gun violence.
- As a taxpayer, I expect Sen. [___] to vote “YES” to taxpayer-funded shelters being required to provide safe harbor to all those in need, no matter what gender identity, along with the basic minimum privacy requirements necessary to provide comfort and dignity for every resident.
- Senator Feinstein: email, DC (202) 224-3841, LA (310) 914-7300, SF (415) 393-0707, SD (619) 231-9712, Fresno (559) 485-7430
- and Senator Padilla: email, DC (202) 224-3553, LA (310) 231-4494, SAC (916) 448-2787,Fresno (559) 497-5109, SF (415) 981-9369, SD (619) 239-3884
- Who is my representative/senator?: https://whoismyrepresentative.com
Brief History of VAWA
Starting again: On March 17, the House passed the latest version of H.R.1620 – The “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act” (VAWA), bipartisan legislation that’s been in effect since 1994, when it was first introduced by then-Senator Biden. At that time, domestic violence against women was considered a family matter, in which law enforcement authorities avoided involvement whenever possible. In a statement after the recent House vote, Biden said “writing and passing VAWA is one of the legislative accomplishments of which I’m most proud,” and urged the Senate to follow suit. “Growing evidence shows that Covid-19 has only exacerbated the threat of intimate partner violence, creating a pandemic within a pandemic for countless women at risk for abuse. This should not be a Democratic or Republican issue — it’s about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence.”
And the situation wasn’t great for women before the pandemic. According to CDC, approximately 1 in 4 women has experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. U.S. crime reports indicate that 16% (about 1 in 6) of homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner.
(Full CRS Report here.) VAWA has been updated and reauthorized three times – in 2000, 2005 and in 2013, after its 2012 renewal was opposed by conservative Republicans objecting to protections for same-sex couples and provisions allowing battered undocumented immigrants to claim temporary visas. Bipartisan updates over the years have included new programs to protect elderly and disabled women; mandatory funding for rape prevention and education; new protections for victims of trafficking, undocumented immigrants and Native American women; and expanded language to be inclusive to the LGBTQ community.
The act expired in late 2018 due to the government shutdown under Trump. It was temporarily reauthorized by a short-term spending bill on January 25, 2019, but expired again on February 15, 2019. The House passed VAWA as H.R. 1585 in April of 2019, whereupon it joined McConnell’s graveyard of stalled legislation.
The 2019/2021 update – NRA backlash: In 2019, VAWA passed the House with language expanding gun restrictions to dating partners and stalkers with misdemeanor convictions for domestic abuse or stalking, finally addressing the “boyfriend loophole” that left many women with unequal protection under the law. FBI data indicates that a boyfriend is nearly as likely as a husband to kill an intimate partner, so closing this loophole will save lives.
It also proposed modifying federal law to allow gun restrictions after “ex parte” emergency restraining orders, (which ex-President Trump was oddly OK with) “…take the firearms first and then go to court,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Pence, adding, “because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns early.” However, this new language spurred the NRA to get involved in VAWA’s renewal for the first time, rallying their legislative puppets in the GOP to object.
The 2019/2021 update – Transgender-issue backlash: The bill also strengthened protections for the LGBTQ+ community, including transgender women’s access to women’s shelters and ability to serve in prisons that match their gender identity. Jennifer Becker, deputy legal director of Legal Momentum, the oldest legal advocacy group for women in the country, stated “Everything that we advocate for in VAWA is based on the reality of what we know victims are being subjected to, and what we know survivors need to seek safety, accountability, healing. These provisions are central to ensuring that people stay alive.” (from Jewish Women International (JWI)). GOP legislators are seizing the opportunity to vilify gun restrictions and transgender aid at the same time and we should expect more of it as the 2021 bill hits the Senate floor.
- No rollbacks from protections in previously passed versions of VAWA
- Firearms – Expands the federal law prohibiting individuals convicted of misdemeanor dating violence and stalking from being able to purchase or possess a firearm – closing the “boyfriend loophole”.
- Prevention – Increases funding for programs that promote healthy relationships and reduce gender-based violence.
- Tribal – Promotes safety for victims of violence on tribal lands: ensuring non-Indian perpetrators who commit sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, and trafficking on tribal lands are held accountable.
- Housing – Enforces housing rights for survivors/victims & increases options to maintain housing or break their leases.
- Economic Justice – Promotes economic security for survivors and assists with supports to leave abusers by allowing domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking victims to be eligible for unemployment insurance.
- Criminal Justice – Creates a new grant to implement alternative justice responses that are focused on victim autonomy.
- Rape Survivors – protects rape survivors from predatory billing practices for their test kits.
- LGBTQ+ – Protects people from gender identity discrimination, and introduces support programs for survivors of domestic violence.
Where are we now, in 2021: H.R.1620 shares much of the 2019 version, and adds expanding survivors’ access to housing and extending “the jurisdiction of tribal authorities over non-Indians who commit a crime in Indian country,” among other new protections. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who was just confirmed by the Senate to lead the Interior Department as the first Native American Cabinet secretary, is one of the cosponsors of the bill. It has strong supporters, along with usual objections from the GOP over guns and LGBTQ+ issues:
The “Boyfriend Loophole” issue
In 1996, two years after the introduction of VAWA, the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, also called the “Lautenberg Amendment,” was passed, which banned access to firearms by people convicted of crimes of domestic violence against an “intimate partner“. The law was intended to close an existing gap in domestic violence prosecutions under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), as these types of crimes were usually charged as a misdemeanor or, through plea-bargain agreements, reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Amazingly, the Senate at that time voted almost unanimously for it.
Due to the Lautenberg Amendment, a conviction for a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence now represents the third-most frequent reason for denial of an application to purchase a firearm by the FBI, after a felony conviction and an outstanding arrest warrant.
Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) stated that his bill “stands for the simple proposition that if you beat your wife, you should not have a gun,” with the best of intentions. Perhaps too simple. The “intimate partner“defined in the bill limited its protection to those relationships that were “sexual and involving cohabitation or a child in common.” More clearly:
- Be a current or former spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.
- Be a child in common with the victim.
- Be a current or former cohabitant with the victim as a spouse, parent, or guardian.
- Be similarly situated to a spouse, parent, or guardian of the victim.
This left out physically abusive ex-boyfriends and stalkers with previous convictions, creating what is now known as the “Boyfriend Loophole.” Approximately 20 states have moved to fix this issue, with laws that ban abusive dating partners and stalkers from obtaining guns and allow all women to obtain domestic violence restraining orders.
VAWA would expand the federal law’s “intimate partner” definition to include a dating partner or former dating partner with the term “dating partner” referring to a person who is or has been in a social relationship of a romantic or intimate nature with the abuser; and the existence of such a relationship is based on a consideration of: (1) the length of the relationship; (2) the type of relationship; and (3) the frequency of interaction between the persons involved in the relationship.
The “Ex-parte” issue.
This is a quote from a women’s law site in Arkansas. Most women can immediately identify with the fear behind this question, even those who’ve never had to carefully plan how to safely leave an abusive relationship.
Domestic Violence protective orders can be issued after notice and a hearing, or they can be issued in emergency circumstances without a full hearing involving the respondent (ex parte means “one party). According to a lesser known clause of the Lautenberg Amendment, federal law mandates that gun restrictions apply ONLY after a full hearing, where both parties are heard, giving the suspected abuser the opportunity to contest claims that they pose a theat. However, many states already require or authorize courts to prohibit the possession or purchase of firearms by people subject to emergency ex parte orders when a judge believes that the abuser presents a clear and present danger of violence. In CA, these orders can apply to a number of situations, including domestic abuse and stalking.
“Researchers tested whether states that applied firearm restrictions to ex parte orders experienced a decrease in their intimate partner homicide trends, and found that, compared to states without a state level domestic violence restraining order firearm restriction law, states that have the law and cover ex parte orders experienced an associated 13% decrease in intimate partner homicide and 16% decrease in firearm intimate partner homicide (Zeoli et al., 2017) When a state had the restraining order firearm restriction but did not cover ex parte orders, there was no statistically significant difference between their intimate partner homicide rates and the rates of states without the restraining order firearm restriction. This suggests that covering ex parte orders may save lives.“
(hrlr.law.columbia.edu) This federal law [18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(8)] is under-inclusive because it does not cover non-spouse intimate partners who have neither resided nor had a child with the subject of the order. Such a narrow definition is problematic because it fails to capture a large segment of abusers who should be subjected to the firearm prohibition based on their conduct but who are exempted based on a dated conception of domestic violence. In the early 1980s, the number of intimate-partner homicides committed by spouses was 69.1% of all domestic violence-related homicides. number decreased steadily to about 46.7% in 2008.60 Taking its place has been the rise of intimate-partner homicides committed by a boyfriend or girlfriend, which rose to 48.6% in 2008 from 26.8% in 1980.61 This statistic will likely increase in the future as Americans are not only waiting longer to marry but are also marrying less frequently than in previous decades.62 Besides section 922(g)(8)’s under-inclusiveness, the federal statute also suffers from under-enforcement, several notable loopholes, and weak restrictions. For example, the statute does not mandate surrender of firearms and simply criminalizes ownership, possession, and the purchase of firearms.
VAWA, in both the 2019 (H.R. 1585) and current form, would also expand the scope of “protection orders” or “court-order restraints” under 18 U.S.C. §§922(d)(8) and (g)(8) to include restraining orders issued after an “ex parte” hearing. Temporary orders last for the period of time stated in the order, usually up to 20 days. The NRA believes confiscation of guns, or banning purchase of guns during the period before the hearing a violation of due process. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) tried to amend the 2021 version, stating that VAWA can’t take away a person’s constitutional right to bear arms “based on an allegation where such person does not have the opportunity to contest such allegation.”
The Stalking issue.
According to the Gifford Law Center, – “Stalking is a strong predictor of future violence. Under current federal law, individuals convicted of felony stalking offenses are prohibited from accessing guns. But individuals convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses are not prohibited from accessing guns if the stalking offense was not in the context of a domestic relationship. Several states have gone above and beyond federal law to prohibit stalkers from purchasing or possessing guns, including CA, CN, HI, MN, NM, NY, ND, OR, PA, and RI.”
VAWA would fix the Lautenberg Amendment loophole too, granting federal protection to those stalking victims not covered by the “imtimate partners” clause and making any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of stalking” a tenth category of prohibited persons, ineligible of receiving or possessing a firearm or ammunition.
“Stalking is generally defined as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.” Stalking often includes unwanted communication, including phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media messages; following or watching the victim from a distance; and unexpectedly appearing at locations where the victim is known to be present, such as home, school, or work. Stalking poses significant concerns for the safety of a victim, as this is an ongoing course-of-conduct crime that tends to escalate in frequency and severity. Stalking also has a devastating psychological impact on victims, even when the threatening conduct has stopped. Victims of stalking report experiencing elevated rates of traumatic stress, excessive fear, and anxiety. These effects have a lasting impact on a victim’s quality of life and can lead to disruptions in social interactions and employment.“
Although stalking cases can be hard to document and prosecute, they are treated as a serious crime under both federal and state law. However, many courts and prosecutors will allow a defendant to plead to a misdemeanor-level charge in order to expedite proceedings, especially if the victim does not wish to participate in an extended criminal proceeding. With the updated VAWA, those convicted would still face firearms restrictions.
The GOP/NRA’s response tends to minimize or dismiss the increasingly well-known consequences of stalking, such as 54% of victims reported stalking to the police before they were killed by their stalkers, 1 out of 7 stalking victims moved because of their victimization, and 1 out of 4 stalking victims contemplated suicide.
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the N.R.A., said that for “many of those ‘offenses’ — and I’m using air quotes here — the behavior that would qualify as a stalking offense is often not violent or threatening; it involves no personal contact whatsoever. Like if you were sending harassing messages to somebody on Facebook, to somebody you never met or somebody you dated five years ago,” she said, adding, “How it’s written right now, you could be convicted for a misdemeanor stalking offense for a tweet that causes someone emotional distress and then you would be prohibited from owning a firearm.” She argues that the new provision is “too broad and ripe for abuse.”
Victim advocates find the N.R.A.’s argument far-fetched. “A single tweet or Facebook message, without significant other conduct, would ordinarily not be enough” to result in a conviction for stalking, said David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, which provides guidance to law enforcement and governments on implementing firearms prohibitions, but takes no position on the new domestic violence act provision.
The transgender-women-in-women’s-shelter issue.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless have shared their vast hands-on experience in running homeless facilities that include transgender residents in an amazing handbook here.
It covers definitions, health and legal issues, before getting down to the issues that seem to perpetually upset the GOP. Basically, shelters should create an environment that treats every resident with dignity, which includes providing privacy for basic health and hygiene issues. This is good for transgender people, families with children, the disabled, the elderly, the abused, and anyone else who’s had the misfortune of losing their housing.
- Restrooms: Short answer – put lockable doors on stalls, or make a room lockable. Nobody likes being watched or walked in on while using the toilet.
- Showers: Gang showers are a holdover from gyms of the 50’s, before cellphones cameras and the internet were a threat. People should have a basic right to privacy when they are at their most vulnerable. Older facilities can put in curtains between shower heads or make a separate room lockable.
- Sleeping Arrangements: Let people who feel vulnerable choose sleeping areas within eyesight of staff.
- Dealing with harrassment and the concerns of other residents: Counseling and trainings for other residents have been effective in creating mutual respect.
If taxpayer-funded shelters run by religious groups can’t or won’t provide these basic requirements to one group, such as transgender women, then it must be assumed that they are falling short of the needs of other clients as well. We expect our legislators to use our tax dollars wisely and redirect funding to more capable groups.