The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) would expand measures designed to protect victims of intimate partner violence. The new law would close what is known as the “boyfriend loophole,” and extend some of the law’s protections prohibiting firearm possession to include dating partners.
The original law expired in February, and the House will vote on the new legislation this week. But the bill is facing massive opposition from Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Some Republicans have already said they won’t vote for it due to its expanded measures.
Currently, people convicted of domestic abuse are only prohibited from possessing guns if they live with the victim, have a child with them, are a parent or guardian, or they are, or were once, married to them. This leaves out many cases of intimate partner violence, and the VAWA reauthorization would expand this to include dating partners, stalkers, and former partners.
Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director at the Giffords Law Center, which provides legal assistance to lawmakers, activists, and government attorneys for gun control efforts, told ThinkProgress that the provisions recognizing stalkers are an important addition to this law.
“While stalking is a strong indicator of future violence, people convicted of stalking misdemeanors are still eligible to purchase guns. This bill would close these loopholes, and increase enforcement of the laws that prevent domestic abusers from using guns to harm their victims,” she said.
The bill is sponsored by Reps. Karen Bass (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), who is the only Republican co-sponsor of the bill. This legislation allows law enforcement to confiscate firearms from abusers by providing a mechanism through which to enforce the prohibition on gun possession. Current federal law fails to require abusers to turn firearms into law enforcement after they are convicted of domestic violence offenses. This reauthorization will would allow law enforcement to confiscate guns over misdemeanor domestic violence or stalking convictions.
The NRA has strongly opposed measures that would curb intimate partner violence. In 2018, the organization lobbied on “proposed changes in legal proceedings to confiscate firearms from individuals,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ lobbying database.
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA, told The New York Times the new VAWA language is too broad and, “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.”
Baker said if a person sends “a tweet that causes someone emotional distress,” they would be banned from owning firearms.
But it’s unlikely police would pursue this path after seeing a single tweet. The Justice Department defines stalking 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.”
Even if one takes into account the rare instance that innocuous messages on social media would receive law enforcement scrutiny, that may be a small price to pay to prevent gun-related intimate partner deaths.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis released in 2017 found that of all murders of women in the United States, 55% were related to intimate partner violence. More than 90% of those women were killed by a current or former romantic partner. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by an abuser if the abuser owns a firearm. In 2011, nearly two-thirds of women killed with guns were killed by men who were intimate partners.
This violence can be found across the country. In February, Arnold Johnson was arrested and charged with killing his ex-girlfriend, Maryann Wellington. Officers found Wellington, the mother of a three-year-old, dead in northeast Baltimore with multiple gunshot wounds. In 2018, a man fatally shot his girlfriend and wounded another woman in Erie, Pennsylvania. He went to the pizzeria she worked at and shot her in the head.
Children are also often killed due to intimate partner violence.
Cheryl Mascareñas, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, briefly dated a man named George Daniel Wechsler in 2016, before ending the relationship. One day, she returned home with her kids to find her ex-boyfriend waiting for her with a gun. He shot Mascareñas and her children before turning the gun on himself. She survived, but her children didn’t. This wasn’t the first time he posed a threat to someone else. Wechsler had pleaded guilty to stalking and assault before and had been arrested for battery against a household member, according to The New York Times. But he wasn’t married to any of the women he abused, and so he continued to have access to guns.
Last year in St. Louis, Missouri, Richard Darren Emery shot his girlfriend, her children, and her mother in their home. No one survived the shooting.
Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who focuses on gun violence research, said the new VAWA provisions will prevent more intimate partner violence deaths.
A 2017 study, co-authored by Siegel, found that the number of intimate partner murders did not significantly change if a state simply banned people with restraining orders against them from buying guns. States that required those people to actually give up their guns, however, saw murders of intimate partners drop by 14%. In a study released last week, Siegel and other researchers also found that laws prohibiting firearm possession for people convicted of a violent misdemeanor crime are associated with substantially lower homicide rates.
“There is overwhelming evidence that women who have been abused by a partner or women who have a restraining order on a partner are at extreme risk for violence,” Siegel said.
Siegel added that although some states have closed the boyfriend loophole and require people to turn in firearms, federal legislation is needed to extend those protections to everyone across the United States. Only seven states require people surrender weapons for all firearm-prohibiting crimes, and eight states require that someone surrenders firearms when they are convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor or certain domestic violence offenses, according to the Giffords Law Center.
Siegel said that in the past couple of years he has seen a shift in how states are responding to efforts to curb intimate partner gun violence. Last year, Louisiana expanded a gun law focusing on intimate partner violence, requiring gun dealers to report abusers’ failed attempts to buy guns and requiring abusers to disclose the number and location of all firearms they own.
“I think that legislators are realizing that it is not OK to be in favor of violence against women and that voting against a law like this is going to create the perception that they are in favor of this violence because it is easily preventable,” Siegel said. “If you’re voting against these laws, you’re voting for more violence against women.”