House votes to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act, closing 'boyfriend loophole'

The House passed legislation on Thursday reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) over objections from the National Rifle Association and Republicans who say it will restrict gun rights by preventing people convicted of stalking or abusing dating partners from buying a gun.

Thirty-three Republicans opted to break party lines and vote for the bill backed by Reps. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassOvernight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds Democrats push to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police Outrage erupts over Breonna Taylor grand jury ruling MORE (D-Calif.) and Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickHopes for DC, Puerto Rico statehood rise Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum DCCC reserves new ad buys in competitive districts, adds new members to 'Red to Blue' program MORE (R-Pa.), the only GOP lawmaker to co-sponsor it.

Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonKate Schroder in Ohio among Democratic challengers squelching GOP hopes for the House The Hill's Campaign Report: 19 years since 9/11 | Dem rival to Marjorie Taylor Greene drops out | Collin Peterson faces fight of his career | Court delivers blow to ex-felon voting rights in Florida Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district MORE (D-Minn.) was the sole Democrat to vote against the measure, which passed 263-158. 

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“I was disappointed that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization was made partisan with the inclusion of language that would strip individuals’ right to due process with respect to their 2nd Amendment rights," Peterson said in a statement to The Hill. 

Congress had allowed VAWA, which provides funding and grants for a variety of programs that tackle domestic abuse, to lapse in February when it was omitted from a massive spending bill ending a partial government shutdown. 

Bass argued it’s past time for Congress to modernize the law, which was first passed in 1994.

“This is our opportunity to respond to the basic needs of victims and survivors everywhere, absent discrimination based on their race, sex, religion or nationality,” she said during debate.

Current law forbids firearm purchases for spouses or formerly married partners convicted of abuse or under a restraining order, but VAWA’s new language expands that restriction to include dating partners who were never legally married, eliminating the so-called boyfriend loophole.

“According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on average, nearly 20 people every minute — 20 people every minute — are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. That is a tragedy and a crisis. One in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical violence, and 1 in 7 have been stalked by an intimate partner to the point at which she felt very fearful, or believed that she or someone close to her would be harmed or killed. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk — hear me — increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe House's stake in filibuster reform Centrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power MORE (D-Md.) said on the floor during debate. 

“That is why we aim to close gun loopholes by expanding the definition of intimate partners to include dating or former dating partners. It is also why this bill has language preventing anybody convicted of a misdemeanor crime of stalking from obtaining a gun.”

Democrats have alleged Republicans are prioritizing access to gun purchases over the safety of women.  

But critics, including top Republicans and gun rights groups, argue the bill is an assault on Americans' Second Amendment rights and have raised concerns the changes could prevent victims of domestic abuse from obtaining a weapon to protect themselves.

"Mr. Speaker, my colleagues and I want to find a solution that helps victims, prevents domestic violence and strengthens programs that serve vulnerable populations. We stand willing and ready to discuss ways to do that," House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsDemocrats ramp up pressure on Lieberman to drop out of Georgia Senate race The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements GOP, Democrats look to galvanize women with SCOTUS fight MORE (R-Ga.) said on the floor. 

“But I cannot and will not support a bill that undermines and jeopardizes due process, that curtails prosecutorial discretion, that makes it more difficult for victims in rural areas to find housing, that could weaken programs for female victims, that could re-victimize abused women and that undercuts Second Amendment rights."

Sticking points between the parties included language that would prohibit those convicted of misdemeanor stalking or domestic violence offenses from purchasing a firearm — a change from current policy which only restricts felons from gun purchases — allow transgender women access to women’s shelters and requirements for prisons to allow transgender people to be housed in facilities that match the gender they identify.

“This bill, as written, forces shelters and service providers under the power of federal law, shelters that may not even be equipped to place males in the same sleeping and showering quarters as women and children purely based on how that individual identifies,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said on the floor. “These gaping holes in the law will put women and children at risk from predators who may have experienced trauma from male predators themselves.”

GOP leadership blasted Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAirline industry applauds Democrats for including aid in coronavirus relief package Democrats unveil scaled-down .2T coronavirus relief package Trump tax reveal roils presidential race MORE for allowing VAWA to expire, alleging the California Democrat has politicized what has traditionally been a bipartisan issue and that she is responsible for a clean reauthorization not making it into the February spending bill. 

"We were for renewing it. Nancy Pelosi is the one that blocked it, she wanted it to expire because, like so many issues, she could use different people as pawns for her political games," House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseGinsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol House GOP slated to unveil agenda ahead of election House panel details 'serious' concerns around Florida, Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin elections MORE (R-La.) told reporters Thursday.

—Updated at 3:42 p.m.