Violence Against Women Act

by Anna Katherine Sherman

Less than a week ago, the House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This act has had a complicated past of expiring and being passed through Congress multiple times to get reinstated. Originally, the bill was intended to provide funding for prosecuting perpetrators of violent crimes against women when it was passed in 1994. The large debate now is that, as Republicans argue, the act may infringe upon one’s Second Amendment right to a firearm, and some claim that it will not be able to pass through the Republican-majority Senate.

Several different versions of this act have existed in its 25-year history. The current form, that has just been passed by the House of Representatives, mentions protections for transgender people and immigrants, which has been a point of contention for some members of Congress. However, the biggest emphasis of the latest version of the VAWA is being placed on the amendment’s removal of the “boyfriend loophole,” which will make it illegal for men who have abused women they were dating to own a gun. Specifically, it will prevent those who have been convicted of stalking or abusing an intimate partner (whether married or in a dating relationship) from purchasing a gun. While Republicans who are not in support of the act claim it is because they want to support victims’ right to buy a gun, the act itself makes no mention of limiting gun access for victims of interpersonal violence. Thus, the Violence Against Women Act would expand its protection to victims of dating violence rather than just domestic violence, which is limited to those in a domestic partnership or who are married.

The general sentiment of the Democratic Party seems to be that this act will protect women as it is intended to. The Republican party however, are not all in agreement. In fact, the final tally for the House vote was 263-158, with 157 of those opposing of the Republican party. Many attribute this to the fact that the bill is introducing stricter gun laws. In the 2018 election, the NRA spent nearly $700,000 on Republican Congressional candidates, so it is likely that these delegates now feel the pressure to side for the Second Amendment argument. However, the restriction had already existed against perpetrators of domestic violence. The only further limitation of gun rights is that it now also prevents perpetrators of intimate-partner violence, regardless of marital status, from purchasing guns.

This is not the first time, though, that the act has been heavily disputed. United States v. Morrison challenged the constitutionality of the Violence Against Women Act in 2000 based on the Fourteenth Amendment or the Commerce Clause under United States v. Lopez. The court held that the legislation doe not affect interstate commerce or any type of economic activity, and thus would not violate the Commerce Clause, which affirmed the decision of the lower court. The court affirmed, however, that the civil remedy that the Violence Against Women Act includes is outside the scope of Congress’s power because of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment has always protected private actors, as far back as DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services in 1989. The decision of this case held that the Fourteenth Amendment can only be applied to prevent state action. This judicial precedent implies that the state cannot intervene, from a legislative standpoint, in the private affairs of citizens. Therefore, because the VAWA intends to regulate the behavior of private individuals, nor did it regulate economic activity, it was found to be unconstitutional. However, not all of the VAWA was affected by this. Only the civil rights provision of the act was ruled unconstitutional, but the legislation includes many other protections for female victims of violence, which is why it has continuously been reenacted.

Part of the newest version of the Violence Against Women Act that will soon be on the Senate floor is an amendment created by Republican Representative Cindy Axne. Her amendment includes provisions for an increase in grant funding of the STOP (Services, Training, Officers, Prosecutors) grants, which provide law enforcement and state agencies with the “resources they need to better combat and prosecute violence against women.” This funding is crucial in the improvement of support for survivors and increases the services that are available to them. For example, in Axne’s district in Iowa, there are several rural communities. Without sufficient funding of STOP, victims of interpersonal violence would have to commute sizable distances and incur greater expenses in order to access the legal and medical resources they need. With this increase in funding, however, officers and other officials can afford to make the commute to meet the survivor, which serves as a way to further aid them in their recovery process.

Thus, despite some hesitation about whether the act as it stands will pass in the Senate, the conversation about increasing right and resources for survivors is encouraging. The Violence Against Women Act, throughout the past 15 years, has increased political conversation about the subject of domestic and interpersonal violence, which was something that had largely been ignored before its creation by President Bill Clinton. The National Network to End Domestic Violence estimates that more than two million adults and more than 15 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year. This is very clearly an issue that affects our country, and the legislation that is headed to the Senate reflects that sentiment.