Column: The renewal of the Violence Against Women Act should be a no-brainer. But it’s not

A makeshift memorial for victims of Atlanta-area shootings.
A makeshift memorial in Atlanta at Gold Spa, one of three massage parlors where eight people were shot to death Tuesday. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.
(Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

March is supposed to be a good month for women.

It’s Women’s History Month, after all, a time to celebrate the oft-forgotten achievements of women and to remind ourselves that we’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve got a lot further to go.

The killing Tuesday in Atlanta of seven women and one man, including six women of Asian descent, painfully reminds us of the vulnerability of women to misplaced, irrational male anger. A young white man has been charged with their murders.

It is one more horrific reminder of the racist scapegoating of Asian Americans during this pandemic year, and of the relentless objectification of Asian women. It also reminds us, as if we need the help, that easy access to guns, and their glorification, is an American crisis.


In an unintended stroke of irony, one day after the tragedy in Atlanta, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which then-Sen. Joe Biden originally introduced in Congress. When it became law in 1994, the act was a landmark piece of legislation.

It allocated $1.6 billion for investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women and created a rape shield law that prevented prosecutors from tarnishing female victims by introducing their sexual histories in court. The Office of Violence Against Women was established in the Department of Justice to implement it. The act also provided funding for battered women’s shelters and for programs aimed at preventing domestic violence.

The Violence Against Women Act lapsed in 2018, but amid alarming reports about a rise in domestic violence during pandemic lockdowns, lawmakers were persuaded of the urgent need to reinstate it.

The House approved reauthorization of the act with a bipartisan 244-172 vote. It expands some of the original act’s protections and creates some new ones. The language, by the way, is gender neutral, as intimate-partner violence is obviously not limited to heterosexual relationships. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner violence and/or stalking.

The act improves services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, and provides new protections for young victims of violence, including adding funds to improve screening for intimate partner violence. It ensures that violence survivors can remain housed in the event of a breakup with a spouse and creates protections for Native American women through tribal registries for sex offenders and those who have been ordered to stay away from victims.

At this point, you might be wondering, why did 172 Republican House members vote against it?

(Twenty-nine Republicans supported it.)

Would it surprise you to know their opposition probably has something to do with limits on gun ownership?

The new version of the Violence Against Women Act contains language that would close a quirk of the law known as “the boyfriend loophole.”


Currently, federal law prohibits those convicted of domestic violence from possessing or buying firearms. But it does not apply to perpetrators who have abused current or former dating partners with whom they do not share a child, or with whom they have never lived, thus the name “boyfriend loophole.”

And yet about half of all intimate partner homicides are committed by current or former dating partners.

Closing this loophole doesn’t just makes sense. It’s imperative. States that prevent abusive dating partners from owning guns have 16% fewer intimate partner gun homicides, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology.

However, if you are a gun nut — and by nut, I mean you elevate the right to own firearms above all meaningful violence prevention measures — you would, understandably, oppose this move.

“If you want to protect women, make sure women are gun owners and know how to defend themselves. That’s the greatest defense for women,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman representative who has distinguished herself by her allegiance to both right-wing conspiracy theories and former President Trump, whose professed affection for the 2nd Amendment may have been eclipsed only by his love for himself.

Some states, including California, have already closed the boyfriend loophole.

“In California, we define domestic violence to include dating partners,” said Julia Weber of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “There are places in this country that are less inclined to recognize that those relationships are as in need of protection as married partners.”


The bill, which now goes to the Senate, also closes a loophole in federal law that allows those convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses to own guns. First-time felony stalking offenders often plead down to misdemeanor charges, which means they can still own and purchase firearms. But no one convicted of stalking should be allowed to own a weapon. Period.

Weber works to identify ways to implement gun safety policies. She often gives presentations that she likens to teaching “Domestic Violence 101.” She told me she’s surprised that she is still teaching legal professionals and others about how difficult it is for partners to leave abusive relationships, or why they choose to stay in spite of violence.

I’m surprised, too. I thought by now the complex dynamics of abusive relationships were fairly well known. Often, the most dangerous period in a violent relationship occurs when the victim finally leaves or receives a restraining order against her abuser.

Weber told me that more than a million American women who are alive today have been shot or shot at by intimate partners. I was so taken aback by that number, I asked her to send me written proof, which included another astonishing figure: About 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner.

Despite the spasms of violence that rock us to our core, we can make our country safer from gun violence. Failing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act would be a crime.