A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill Wednesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) — a 1994 law credited with significantly reducing intimate partner violence whose renewal was delayed over Republican objections to a proposed gun-safety provision.
That provision has been dropped. The measure introduced Wednesday would not close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which allows individuals convicted of domestic violence against a partner they are not married to purchase guns.
In 2019, after VAWA expired, the only House Democrat who voted against renewal did so over a boyfriend loophole provision. Senate Republicans likewise said they could not support a bill that might infringe on the Second Amendment right to bear arms and talks broke down.
In December, after three years of negotiations, Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California, as well as Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced they had reached a consensus on a bipartisan framework to reauthorize VAWA. They worked through some final details last week.
Though the measure introduced Wednesday would not close the boyfriend loophole, it already has the support of at least nine Republican senators, meaning it has a good chance to pass in the evenly divided, 100-seat chamber, where most legislation requires support from 60 senators.
“So folks, I’m a survivor,” Ernst said at a news conference where senators were joined by actor and activist Angelina Jolie. “I know firsthand what happens when someone you trust abuses you.”
“I’ve said time and again throughout this process, I want to come to a solution that won’t just be a political talking point for one side, or the other, but a bill that can gain bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate and truly deliver for my fellow survivors of these life-altering abuses,” Ernst added.
Durbin said senators are “perilously close” to having the 60 votes to pass the renewal and that it was a “tough choice” to drop the boyfriend loophole provision, but that it might be introduced as a separate measure.
The timing for a Senate vote is unclear. The House, which has a Democratic majority, passed a VAWA renewal last year but will need to vote again on the version the Senate can pass.
The National Rifle Association opposes closing the boyfriend loophole, making supporting the gun safety provision a political risk for Republican lawmakers. The gun rights group spent more than $22 million during the 2020 election cycle, nearly all of which supported Republicans or opposed Democrats.
“That provision became controversial, and we had to measure the remainder of the bill against that provision,” Durbin said.
Jolie has made several visits to Washington in the past few months to push for VAWA reauthorization. She said the “reason that many people struggle to leave abusive situations is that they’ve been made to feel worthless.”
“When there is a silence from a Congress too busy to renew the Violence Against Women Act … it reinforces that sense of worthlessness,” Jolie said.
VAWA requires congressional reauthorizations because it was written with a five-year sunset provision to update funding levels for its grant programs. If VAWA expires, as it did in early 2019, but is not reauthorized, its existing programs can be funded in budgets proposed by the president and approved by Congress, but changing or adding provisions requires congressional action and the president’s signature.
President Joe Biden shepherded VAWA through Congress when he was a senator, and during his White House campaign and since he has called on lawmakers to renew the legislation.
Biden said last year that “delay is not an option” and cited reports that domestic violence increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men reported having experienced physical violence from an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Government data does not disaggregate sex from gender or account for nonbinary people, but research suggests transgender people face high rates of intimate partner violence and additional barriers to receiving help.
In the 25 years after VAWA’s passage, the rate of intimate partner violence dropped by more than 50 percent, according to government statistics.
The measure introduced Wednesday would authorize a grant program for LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence, and extend tribal courts’ jurisdiction to some non-Native American perpetrators of domestic violence with sexual assault or child abuse on tribal lands. It also includes a pilot program aimed at Alaska Native populations.
Murkowski said that a 2020 survey showed that more than half of women in her home state of Alaska have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetimes. There are “jurisdictional complexities due to geography, isolated communities with sparse populations, you can have a situation where you have literally no law enforcement whatsoever.”
“Every victim needs to know there can be a path to justice,” Murkowski said.