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Senators unveil compromise Violence Against Women Act

Democrats drop 'boyfriend loophole' provision in latest reauthorization bill

Angelina Jolie joins senators at a news conference Wednesday on details of a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill.
Angelina Jolie joins senators at a news conference Wednesday on details of a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of senators unveiled the latest proposal to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act on Wednesday in a measure that would not close the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” despite a Democratic effort to expand gun bans for convicted abusers.

Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced the measure at a news conference alongside advocates, including actor Angelina Jolie. Ernst said the bill includes many priorities for her as a domestic violence survivor, such as more resources for rural areas and provisions addressing abuse against women in law enforcement custody.

“I wanted 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 said.

In December, the lawmakers announced an agreement on a framework for the reauthorization but provided few details. In their bill introduction Wednesday, they said the new language removes a key provision for House Democrats: closing the “boyfriend loophole” so that dating partners, in addition to spouses, would be prohibited from owning a gun if convicted of domestic violence.

Durbin said the bill is “perilously close” to reaching the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passage and he planned to seek a floor vote after the Presidents Day recess.

“In order to get anywhere near 60 votes, that provision became controversial, and we had to measure the remainder of the bill against that provision. It’s a tough choice and we made the choice we thought was right,” he said, adding he would support a separate vote on the provision.  

Durbin and the other lawmakers said the bill has 18 original cosponsors, nine from each party.

President Joe Biden praised the bill in a statement issued after its introduction, saying he would sign it if passed by Congress.

“It will strengthen rape prevention and education efforts, support rape crisis centers, improve the training of sexual assault forensic examiners, and broaden access to legal services for all survivors, among other things,” he said.

First passed in 1994, VAWA enshrines legal protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The original bill was championed by then-Sen. Biden and was reauthorized and updated in 2000, 2005 and 2013. The most recent authorization lapsed in 2019.

The House passed a bill to renew the law last March in a 244-172 vote that netted the support of 29 Republicans.

But the National Rifle Association opposed the House measure because of the expanded firearm ban. The group said the law should not expand current limited exemptions that take gun rights from people convicted of misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a key backer of closing the “boyfriend loophole,” issued a statement Wednesday applauding the introduction of the bill but expressed disappointment that it failed to include the gun provision.

“I will continue fighting to close this nonsensical loophole that’s putting survivors of domestic abuse at risk every single day. Still, this bill is a major step in the right direction and is crucial to making progress,” she said.

The measure introduced Wednesday would include an expansion of Native American tribes’ jurisdiction to include crimes committed by nontribal members, expanding the list of those who can be prosecuted for domestic assault and including assault on law enforcement officials. 

The 2013 reauthorization allowed tribes to prosecute nontribal members for domestic violence, but not crimes such as assaults on children or on law enforcement officers. 

Murkowski said the updated provisions were a major priority for her, given the “crisis” of abuse among tribes in her state. The bill includes provisions to expand access for Alaskan native tribes to federal criminal justice resources, she said.

The proposal also includes national versions of proposals passed in some states like “Kayden’s Law,” a Pennsylvania measure that expands restrictions on child visitation in custody proceedings for a parent with a history of abuse.

Emotions high

At times during the press conference, speakers teared up talking about their own abuse or the ongoing issues victims face in seeking justice for their abusers. 

“Over your masks I’ve seen tears well up,” Murkowski said.

Ruth Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the bill would provide more support to survivors than when she was a victim in the days before VAWA existed.

“Some survivors are young people. Some are older adults, some have disabilities and some do not. This VAWA recognizes that every survivor and their myriad of issues are different. This VAWA will meet survivors where they are with responses and services specific to their needs,” Glenn said.

Baltimore’s police commissioner, Michael S. Harrison, said he was “disappointed” the bill did not include the expanded firearm provision.  Speaking on behalf of the Major City Chiefs Association, Harrison urged the provision to be added back in during Wednesday’s event.

“The relationship between a convicted perpetrator of a domestic violence and victim should not be the factor that determines if the individual can possess a firearm under federal law,” Harrison said.

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