We Need to Talk About Women & Gun Violence

It's time to close the "boyfriend loophole."

Photo: Yeji Kim/BETO BARATA/AFP via Getty Images

It's been almost three decades since the Violence Against Women Act was enacted in 1994. Originally signed by then-President Bill Clinton, with heavy support from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (who, at the time, was a senator for Delaware), the legislation has provided billions of dollars toward investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women. It also led to the creation of the Office on Violence Against Women, a component of the Department of Justice that strengthens services for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The law created a national hotline for victims of domestic violence. It funded shelters and crisis centers and supported law enforcement training in communities across the country to properly investigate violent acts against women and support survivors.

To say the least, the VAWA changed the way Americans understand and fundamentally view violence against women. Between 1994 (when the law was created) and 2010, intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent, according to the Department of Justice. Multiple experts say the VAWA played a huge role in that decline.

Since it was signed into law, the VAWA has been renewed every five years, each time introducing new provisions to better protect women from violence. The 2019 update of the VAWA, for example, included a proposal to close what's called the "boyfriend loophole." Right now, federal law prevents domestic abusers from having guns, but only if the abuser is married to (or was married to), lives with, or has a child with the victim. This means there's nothing stopping abusive dating partners from accessing guns, even if they have a criminal record of domestic violence. Considering that homicides committed by dating partners have been increasing for three decades; the fact that women are nearly as likely to be killed by dating partners as by spouses; and the fact that the mere presence of a gun in domestic violence situations can increase a woman's homicide risk by as much as 500 percent, it's never been more important to close the "boyfriend loophole."

However, when the elimination of the "boyfriend loophole" was introduced in the 2019 update of the VAWA, the National Rifle Association, a gun rights advocacy group, lobbied hard against passing the legislation. Partisan fighting in Congress ensued, stalling the VAWA's reauthorization efforts. As a result, the VAWA has now expired, leaving domestic violence survivors, women's shelters, and other organizations that provide much-needed relief to abused women without federal and financial support. This is especially relevant now, as domestic violence hotlines and rape crisis centers have reported steady increases in calls since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can we reauthorize the VAWA and improve the safety net for domestic violence survivors? Shape spoke with Lynn Rosenthal, a nationally known champion for the prevention of family violence, about the challenges facing VAWA reauthorization and how Biden plans to tackle them. Rosenthal has held positions as the director of the Violence Against Women Initiatives for the Biden Foundation, the first-ever White House advisor on violence against women under President Barack Obama, and vice president for strategic partnerships at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Shape: What are the biggest challenges currently facing VAWA reauthorization?

Rosenthal: Domestic violence and guns are a deadly combination. Since the beginning of the VAWA, there have been protections in the legislation against gun violence, starting with the provision that somebody who's under a permanent order of protection (a.k.a. a restraining order) for domestic violence cannot legally possess firearms or ammunition. Another protection in the legislation is the Lautenberg Amendment, which states that people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes also cannot legally possess guns or ammunition. However, these protections only apply if the victim is (or was) the perpetrator's spouse, if they lived together, or if they shared a child. Closing the "boyfriend loophole" would simply extend these protections to those who aren't married, haven't lived together, and don't have a child together.

Lynn Rosenthal

The VAWA should not, in any way, be a partisan football. It should be a piece of legislation that brings people together to address public safety.

— Lynn Rosenthal

The VAWA should not, in any way, be a partisan football. It's the centerpiece of the nation's response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It should be a piece of legislation that brings people together to address public safety. It shouldn't be used as leverage in the public policy arena. It should stand on its own as a critical piece of legislation. It's appalling to not see these protections extended.

Shape: Why is it especially crucial to reauthorize the VAWA in the current climate?

Rosenthal: The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare all kinds of disparities, including racial disparities in the response to the pandemic and the risk those communities face. When you add domestic violence into the mix, that makes matters even more complicated.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act included some funding for domestic violence services, but not enough. We have to provide more relief to survivors of domestic violence and the programs that serve them. Imagine the effects of the pandemic on people who are shut in their homes, dealing with all of the concerns of isolation, trying to help their kids in school, and facing domestic violence and abuse. We need to get relief for these folks not just through the VAWA, but through more immediate measures too, such as another COVID-19 recovery package. Otherwise, we leave victims of domestic violence potentially without help and protection for many years as we pursue the nation's overall recovery from the pandemic.

For the VAWA reauthorization, in particular, the real question is this: Is the issue of domestic violence against women a priority for our country, or not? If we look at the data, more than one in three women experience some form of abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. That's a significant part of our population whose needs often go unaddressed. If we understand the extent of the problem and the risk to long-term health and mental health concerns for women and families, then we would make this a priority. We would pass another COVID-19 recovery package more quickly and with more funding for domestic violence relief. We would move forward with the VAWA reauthorization. We wouldn't be bogged down by partisan fights. If we really cared about this problem, we would move quickly, and we would provide the necessary resources.

Shape: Besides the "boyfriend loophole," what other amendments to the VAWA might improve the safety of domestic violence survivors?

Rosenthal: The VAWA originally focused on improving the criminal justice response to domestic violence and sexual assault through much-needed reforms, including getting states to prioritize victim safety and offender accountability. Another critical part of early forms of the VAWA, which continues to be important today, is funding for a coordinated community response to domestic violence. That means bringing together all the systems that influence the way domestic violence cases move through the system: law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, victim advocacy organizations, etc.

But former-vice president Biden, who introduced the VAWA in the '90s, has always said the legislation is a work in progress that will evolve based on communities' needs. With each VAWA reauthorization — 2000, 2005, 2013 — there were new provisions. Today, the VAWA has evolved to include transitional housing programs (which provide temporary housing and support to help bridge the gap between homelessness and a permanent living situation), subsidized housing, and anti-discrimination protections for domestic violence victims. The VAWA also now includes domestic violence prevention programs and an expanded idea about trauma-informed training (an approach that recognizes the potential presence and role of trauma in others' behavior) for police and other criminal justice workers.

Looking forward, funding should be in the hands of communities who are most affected by domestic violence. Black women face two and a half times the homicide rates of white women in domestic violence situations. This is largely due to systemic racism in criminal justice. Because of those biases, criminal complaints — including domestic violence — made by women of color often aren't taken as seriously. Also, because of police violence in communities of color, Black women may be afraid to reach out for help.

Lynn Rosenthal

Looking forward, funding should be in the hands of communities who are most affected by domestic violence.

— Lynn Rosenthal

Now that the conversation about systemic racism is front and center in the U.S., how can we make sure that domestic violence crimes are included? The VAWA provides an opportunity to do exactly that. It already includes provisions to pilot restorative justice programs, which involve a more informal approach of establishing a dialogue (via conferences and mediations) between survivors and abusers with the support of the survivor's community (family, friends, faith leaders, etc.). That means we're looking beyond policing as the only response to domestic violence and sexual assault by engaging other sectors and services for survivors and maintaining accountability for offenders. That's an exciting opportunity and something we can continue to develop in the future for the VAWA.

Shape: What changes could we expect to see in domestic violence in the U.S. if we elect a president who actively fights to protect women?

Rosenthal: When Biden was in the White House as the vice president, he had a huge influence on the nation's response to campus sexual assault. He worked with the Department of Education on strengthening Title IX (which protects students from sex-based discrimination, including sexual harassment). He helped develop It's On Us, a social awareness program that brings the conversation about sexual assault prevention to hundreds of colleges and universities across the country. He secured millions of dollars in grants toward the nation's effort to address the backlog of untested rape kits so that sexual assault survivors could find justice.

That's everything he did as vice president. Imagine what else he might accomplish as the president. He could set priorities in the federal budget and make recommendations for Congress about the level of funding that domestic violence prevention programs actually need to address the scale of the problem. He could steer us back to practices that have fallen by the wayside such as training health care providers about domestic violence and investing in rape prevention and education for youth communities. Prevention is such an important part of where we need to go next. There are evidence-based strategies to show that you can change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors about violence and relationships when you introduce prevention programs to young people early on.

When you have a president who's actively fighting for and properly resourcing these issues, it sets us on the path to ending domestic violence and sexual assault.

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