Lawmakers in both parties to launch new push on Violence Against Women Act

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)


A bipartisan group of lawmakers will press in 2022 for a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) for the first time in nearly a decade following a rise in domestic violence cases during the pandemic.

Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Ala.), who announced a bipartisan deal on a framework for the VAWA reauthorization earlier this month with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), said lawmakers hope to introduce the legislation in the next few weeks.

"I think what we're trying to do is we want to get a solid bipartisan bill introduced in January," Murkowkski said.

"We've got strong advocates around the country behind us that have been helping us with this. We want to build on the momentum and we want to update the law," she added.

If passed, it would mark the first time in almost nine years that VAWA, a landmark piece of legislation then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) championed that was made law in 1994, was reauthorized.

VAWA, which has been reauthorized three times since it took effect, seeks to bolster domestic violence response at multiple levels of government, as well as efforts to combat dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Its last authorization, which was approved by Congress in 2013, expired five years later after lawmakers failed to renew it. At the time, authorizations for appropriations for VAWA programs lapsed, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Lawmakers have continued to approve funding for the programs in annual spending bills. But until VAWA is reauthorized, advocates say the measure, which is usually updated when its authorization is renewed, will fall short of meeting the needs of the victims it is designed to protect.

"Each time we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act ever since it was first authorized in 1994, we really build on the progress of the years before," Terri Poore, policy director at the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said in an interview this week. She added that leaders learned a great deal about how to address violence in the intervening years of past authorizations.

Poore noted that when the bill was first passed, "there weren't a lot of provisions to address sexual assault specifically, and the next authorization really tried to look at those issues."

"Each time the bill's reauthorized, there's a chance for advocates and survivors to think about it, look at it and see what changes need to be made to really address all the needs of all survivors to be safe and have an opportunity to heal and be protected," Poore said.

Among the proposals detailed in the framework announced by the four senators days are provisions that aim to strengthen rape prevention and protections for young survivors, as well as expand access to emergency housing support for survivors.

Advocates say the legislation would come at a critical time after data emerged showing an uptick in domestic cases in parts of the U.S. not long after much of the nation went into lockdown during the pandemic last year.

"People have been at home more with fewer resources," Poore said. "I think domestic violence programs and sexual assault programs have been trying to transition to meet all survivors where they are. But of course, people have been at home more, so some of the pathways for getting out and getting free have been more difficult."

The framework announcement also outlines a provision that would target what advocates and lawmakers have referred to as the so-called "boyfriend loophole" by prohibiting individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence against a dating partner from possessing or purchasing firearms or ammunition.

Lawmakers said the provision would only apply to protective orders and convictions that are issued after the new VAWA reauthorization is enacted.

The move marks the latest attempt by lawmakers to go after the apparent loophole in recent years.

Earlier this year, the House voted to pass legislation reauthorizing VAWA that would prevent dating partners from purchasing or owning guns if they were convicted of domestic violence or abuse, instead of just applying the restriction to spouses or formerly married partners.

However, the legislation stalled in the Senate after opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which attacked a similar provision included in another House-passed bill to reauthorize VAWA in 2019 that also hit a roadblock in the upper chamber at the time.

In a statement to the Detroit News earlier this year, the gun rights group blasted the provision, which was offered by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), arguing the legislation would restrict people's rights with "gun control provisions."

Though it's unclear what the NRA's position is on the current framework, advocates and lawmakers contend the legislation has been carefully reviewed.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Murkowski, who described herself and Ernst as "strong supporters of the Second Amendment," said the lawmakers "worked hard to make sure that there were those protections" in their legislation.

Rachel Graber, director of public policy at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), also said the way the framework takes on the boyfriend loophole differs from the legislation passed by the House months ago.

"The House bill fully closes the dating partner loophole, while the Senate bill only partially closes it," Graber said.

"The Senate bill adds dating partners to the existing domestic violence prohibitors, but only for people who are convicted of dating abuse after the bill takes effect or who are subject to protective orders issued after the date of enactment. So it's not a full fix, but it's a partial fix, and it will save lives," she said.

Additional provisions in the framework include those to expand programs to ensure that VAWA provides access to survivors in rural areas, as well as survivors "requiring culturally specific services," among others.

Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of NCADV, said those measures underscore the importance of understanding the different needs of survivors and supporting Black and Brown organizations, noting "sometimes that community can provide the best service based on cultural norms and cultural resources."

Murkowski, whose state's population is among those with the largest portion of residents identifying as American Indians or Alaska Native, added there are "significant" tribal provisions in the framework.

"We've incorporated the Native American, American Indian and tribal protections ... I have been more immediately involved in this, although I was involved in 2013 and have been involved in years past because this is a significant issue in my state," she said.

A 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that more than 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced violence in their lifetime, over half of which said they have experienced sexual violence or physical violence by an intimate partner.

In Alaska, where American Indian and Alaska Native residents make up almost a fifth of the state's population, a 2020 survey from the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Justice Center, and other partners, estimated that nearly three-fifths of Alaska women had experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetimes. The figure represents a 14.7 percent jump from a previous survey taken five years prior.

"Our domestic violence, statistics are just awful," Mrkowski said.

Glenn, who said her organization has been in touch with lawmakers behind the framework on the plans, added she believes the measure, which lawmakers say also aims to expand access and resources to LGBT survivors, will "allow for us as a nation" to ensure trans women "are supported and receive the services."

"We are very aware as a nation that trans women in particular have really entered violence, specific kinds of violence, that haven't always been addressed," she said.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, this year, at least 50 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been "fatally shot or killed by other violent means."

The data comes a year after the organization reported a record 44 fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people, many of which the group said are Black and Latinx transgender women.