Congress has renewed a 1990s-era law that extends protections to victims of domestic and sexual violence, updating the landmark Violence Against Women Act nearly three years after partisan disagreements caused it to lapse.
It passed this week as part of a $1.5 trillion government funding package and capped years of work by members of the House and Senate. It is certain to win the signature of President Joe Biden, who worked on the law during his days in the Senate.
Passage of the legislation brought a rare moment of bipartisan agreement in the Congress, achieved partly on the strength of the personal connections that lawmakers have to domestic violence and its devastating effects.
For North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, the connection is his adopted son whose biological mother was murdered by her husband. For Sen. Lisa Murkowski, it's the need to expand the tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders in her home state of Alaska. For Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, it comes back to the frantic phone calls she received at the Houston Women’s Center in the 1990s. And for Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, the drive to reauthorize the law is partly rooted in her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
“I know firsthand the horrific experience too many women face at the hands of a perpetrator," Ernst said in a statement. “That’s why for three years I’ve worked diligently and across the aisle to craft a bill that will modernize this important law to ensure my fellow survivors are supported and empowered.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who first helped write and pass the original bill as a House member in 1994, called it “one of the most important laws passed by Congress in the last 30 years.”
Yet the reauthorization of the law, which aims to reduce domestic and sexual violence and improve the response to it through a variety of grant programs, almost didn't happen. The sticking point was a provision in the last proposal, passed by the House in April 2019, that would have prohibited persons previously convicted of misdemeanor stalking from possessing firearms.
Under current federal law, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose their guns if they are currently or formerly married to their victim, live with the victim, have a child together or are a victim’s parent or guardian. But the law doesn't apply to stalkers and current or former dating partners. Advocates have long referred to it as the “boyfriend loophole.”
But expanding the restrictions drew fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association and Republicans in Congress, creating an impasse.
This time, Democrats backed down and did not include the provision. But lawmakers like Jackson Lee say they aren't giving up.
“One of the ways to help women is to get the gun out of the hands of the abuser,” the Houston Democrat said. “And this is not an NRA question. This is a human question. This is saving women and children. This is stepping into their shoes.”
In the three years since the Violence Against Women Act was last authorized, members of Congress, advocates and even Angelina Jolie worked to not only reauthorize the law but to modernize and update it. The new version includes protections for Native American, transgender and immigrant women that had been lacking.
“The reason that many people struggle to leave abusive situations is that they’ve been made to feel worthless,” Jolie said a press conference with senators last month. “When there is silence from a Congress too busy to renew the Violence Against Women Act for a decade, it reinforces that sense of worthlessness.”
The new version of the law will strengthen rape prevention and education efforts as well as training for those in law enforcement and the judicial system.
Biden introduced the original Violence Against Women Act in June 1990 when serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A subsequent version was eventually included in a sweeping crime bill that then-President Bill Clinton would sign into law four years later. Congress has reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act three times since.
The original bill created the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department, which has awarded more than $9 billion in grants to state and local governments, nonprofits and universities over the years. The grants fund crisis intervention programs, transitional housing and legal assistance to victims, among other programs. Supporters said the reauthorization would also boost spending for training law enforcement and the courts.
This story was first published on March 11, 2022. It was updated on March 12, 2022, to correct the name of a Texas congresswoman to Sheila Jackson Lee, not Sheila Lee Jackson.