Senate GOP, NRA Oppose Parts of Violence Against Women Act as COVID-Related Domestic Abuse Rises

Despite a rise in domestic abuse during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Republican senators and the National Rifle Association (NRA) oppose a firearm regulation in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

On Wednesday, the House voted 244 to 172 to renew the VAWA, a 1994 law that lapsed in February 2019. Only 29 of the 211 Republicans in the lower chamber voted to renew it. Now the legislation heads to the Senate.

However, Senate Republicans and the NRA, the nation's largest gun lobby, oppose the bill's closing of the so-called "boyfriend loophole." The opposed provision would prevent any partner convicted of stalking or abuse from obtaining a firearm, USA Today reports. A similar provision is already present in the VAWA. It prevented people convicted of domestic violence or abuse from owning a gun if they were married to, lived with or had a child with the abuse survivor.

Access to firearms increases the likelihood that an abuser might become a murderer, according to the American Journal of Public Health. The GOP and NRA oppose the provision because they say it infringes on gun rights and is "too broad and ripe for abuse," respectively.

National Rifle Association Violence Against Women Act
The National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes a provision in the renewed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that would prohibit convicted stalkers, current or former boyfriends and dating partners from obtaining a firearm. In this photo, members attend the 146th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits on April 29, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Scott Olson/Getty

In a statement to Newsweek, Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, said, "The NRA did not oppose VAWA for its first 25 years. And today, we only oppose the gun control provisions contained within."

Ouimet accused Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and anti-gun lawmakers of inserting gun control provisions into the bill in 2019 "to pit pro-gun lawmakers against it so that they can falsely and maliciously claim these lawmakers don't care about women."

In 2019, then-NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker told The New York Times that the provision could prevent someone from owning a gun if they were ever "convicted for a misdemeanor stalking offense for a tweet that causes someone emotional distress."

But, David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, told the Times that "a single tweet or Facebook message without significant other conduct" wouldn't ordinarily be enough to convict someone of stalking.

Republican Iowa Senator Joni Ernst told The Wall Street Journal that Senate Republicans oppose the current renewal's firearm provision. Instead, Senate Republicans will introduce their own version of the VAWA, she said.

"Certainly we ran into hiccups with some of the gun issues and that's a big one for a number of us—stripping away people's constitutional rights is not something that we should be doing," Ernst said.

Domestic violence incidents in the U.S. have increased by 8.1 percent during the imposition of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, according to a February 2021 report by the National Commission of COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

The report noted that the stress of increased unemployment, financial insecurity and home-based childcare and schooling may have contributed to a rise in domestic abuse. The lockdowns and social distancing measures have also separated abused partners and children from social support networks that could report signs of abuse and help endangered individuals escape.

In past years, the VAWA provided federal funds to help abused individuals, assist violence-prevention programs and pay for medical care. In its three renewals, the VAWA has been widened to include programs protecting elderly women and women with disabilities. Its renewals have also provided more funding for rape prevention and protections for survivors of trafficking.

The latest renewal would give $40 million to develop violence-prevention programs for non-English speaking communities and communities of color. It would also give Native American tribes jurisdiction to prosecute some violent acts against women committed by non-tribal members.

Newsweek contacted Ernst's office for comment.

Update (3/19/2020, 12:45 a.m.): This article has been updated to include a statement from the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.