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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 18, 2022

Biden signs Violence Against Women Act, but without change to 'boyfriend loophole'

In March, President Joe Biden signed a reauthorization of the lapsed Violence Against Women Act. However, the negotiations to secure bipartisan agreement in the Senate required the removal of one of the key provisions Biden and other Democrats had hoped to include — closure of the "boyfriend loophole," which would have involved expanding the categories of people who are prevented from owning or purchasing guns after being convicted of domestic violence.

The act's reauthorization was inserted into a large government funding package that also provided $13.6 billion in aid to Ukraine amid the invasion by Russia. 

The law, for which Biden has played a key legislative role since its passage in 1994, was reauthorized three times, most recently in 2013. That authorization lapsed in 2018, and efforts to reauthorize it had been blocked ever since, largely due to partisan differences over gun rights. (Congress chose to continue funding existing domestic violence and assault programs in the interim.)

"It took time to change the culture, and you did it. You did it," Biden said at a recent event to celebrate the signing of the legislation. "The only way we can change the culture was by shining an ugly, bright light on it and speaking its name."

Under current law, only people who have been married to a victim, lived with them, or had a child with them can be barred from owning a gun due to domestic violence. Legislation that passed the House in March 2021 would have expanded coverage to current and former dating partners as well as people convicted of misdemeanor stalking.

During his presidential campaign, Biden had specifically cited the need to pass "reforms to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers by closing the so-called 'boyfriend loophole.'"

However, to pass the Senate, bipartisan negotiators decided they had to strip out that language. Pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, had expressed opposition to the provision, and keeping the gun provision in the bill could have imperiled Republican support for the entire funding measure. "Otherwise it doesn't get done," one of the negotiators, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told CNN.

Democrats expressed regret that the provision couldn't be included in the final bill, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois calling it a "tough choice" and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., saying it "isn't a perfect bill." But Feinstein added that it was a "good bill" that needed to be sent to the president's desk.

Senate Democrats said they planned to pursue a stand-alone bill on the "boyfriend loophole," though continued opposition from pro-gun advocates make its chances of passing uncertain.

Beyond the reauthorization of funding, Biden and his allies touted other expansions in the legislation, including:

• Expanded jurisdiction for tribal courts over non-Native American perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands.

• Expanding the ability of individuals to use the justice system to pursue perpetrators of "revenge porn."

• Increased services and support for survivors from underserved communities, including for LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

"No one, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, should experience abuse. Period," Biden said. "And if they do, they should have the service and support to get through it, and we're not going to rest."

Biden was able to sign a reauthorization of the act, but it did not include a provision that he specifically touted as a major priority on the campaign trail. We rate this promise a Compromise.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 9, 2021

Violence Against Women Act reauthorization passes House, heads to Senate

For President Joe Biden, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act isn't just another campaign promise. It's more personal: Biden was the original sponsor of the legislation that was signed into law in 1994, and he has called it his "proudest legislative accomplishment."

The process of reauthorizing the law isn't complete, but progress has been made.

On March 17, the House passed the reauthorization measure by a 244-172 margin. All 215 Democrats who voted supported the bill, along with 29 of the 201 Republicans who voted.

The legislation reauthorizes programs that address domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking, through fiscal year 2026. The measure would establish new programs, including closing the "boyfriend loophole," which expands the categories of people who are prevented from owning or purchasing guns after being convicted of domestic violence. Current law bars only people who have been married to a victim, lived with them, or had a child with them. The legislation that passed the House in March would cover current and former dating partners as well as people convicted of misdemeanor stalking.

Another change in the reauthorization bill would require a more extensive decision process when transgender offenders are assigned to a prison, with consideration given to the inmate's safety.

Biden applauded the House's introduction of the measure on March 8.

"Strengthening and renewing VAWA is long past due," he said in a statement. "Delay is not an option, especially when the pandemic and economic crisis have only further increased the risks of abuse and the barriers to safety for women in the United States."

The bill has not yet received action in the Senate. While reauthorizations in previous years have tended to receive substantial bipartisan support, the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster and proceed to a final vote in the Senate poses a tougher obstacle to passage than House consideration did.

The bill isn't law yet, but House passage represents a significant milestone. This promise moves to In the Works.

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