WASHINGTON — The National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby, has settled on its next target on Capitol Hill: blocking Congress from reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that assists victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The House is set to vote on the legislation this week; the law expired in February. But the bill includes a new provision — aimed at curbing sexual violence by expanding law enforcement’s ability to strip domestic abusers of their guns — that the N.R.A. does not like. The measure closes the so-called boyfriend loophole by barring those convicted of abusing, assaulting or stalking a dating partner or those subject to a court restraining order from buying or owning firearms.
Under current federal law, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose their guns if they are — or were formerly — married to their victim, live with their victim, have a child with their victim or are a parent or guardian of their victim. The proposed provision would extend those who can be convicted of domestic abuse to include stalkers and current or former boyfriends or dating partners.
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the N.R.A., said that for “many of those ‘offenses’ — and I’m using air quotes here — the behavior that would qualify as a stalking offense is often not violent or threatening; it involves no personal contact whatsoever.” She argues that the new provision is “too broad and ripe for abuse.”
“Like if you were sending harassing messages to somebody on Facebook, to somebody you never met or somebody you dated five years ago,” she said, adding, “How it’s written right now, you could be convicted for a misdemeanor stalking offense for a tweet that causes someone emotional distress and then you would be prohibited from owning a firearm.”
Others find the N.R.A.’s argument far-fetched. “A single tweet or Facebook message, without significant other conduct, would ordinarily not be enough” to result in a conviction for stalking, said David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, which provides guidance to law enforcement and governments on implementing firearms prohibitions, but takes no position on the new domestic violence act provision.
And times have changed for the gun lobby. A wave of freshman Democrats in Congress were elected on a promise to enact new gun restrictions, and they proudly campaigned against the N.R.A.
“The No. 1 way that women are being killed with guns is by their beloveds, their boyfriends, their significant others,” said one of those freshman Democrats, Representative Lucy McBath of Georgia. “I am not paying attention to the rhetoric of the N.R.A. because I can’t be distracted. What’s most important is putting forth good legislation to save as many lives as we can.” Ms. McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death in 2012.
Roughly half of all female homicide victims are killed by what experts call “intimate partners” — meaning current or former spouses or dating partners — according to a 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about half of intimate partner homicides involved dating relationships, according to Mr. Keck.
The “boyfriend loophole” provision is “a refocus on should we be just looking at domestic partners or should we be looking more broadly at intimate partners?” he said.
Studies also show that domestic abusers with guns inflict a disproportionate amount of violence on their partners, and that the victims are overwhelmingly female. Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun safety group. Roughly three-quarters of all intimate partner murder victims were also victims of stalking by their partners, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
“The share of homicides committed by dating partners has been increasing for three decades,” said Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group that supports tighter gun laws, in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. “Women are now as likely to be killed by dating partners as by spouses with guns.”
The reauthorization bill has one Republican co-sponsor, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, is urging Congress to extend the expired law for the rest of the year to continue funding services to survivors at current levels. Ms. Baker, of the N.R.A., accused Democrats of “playing politics” with the bill by inserting the so-called boyfriend provision as a “poison pill” so that Democrats can portray Republicans who vote against it as anti-woman.
The N.R.A. has decided to “score” the vote on the Violence Against Women Act, meaning it will keep track and publish how lawmakers vote in an effort to either reward or defeat them in the next election. While the move is not likely to keep the bill from passing the House, it does make it more likely that the “boyfriend loophole” provision will be stripped from the act when the measure arrives in the Senate.
“Anybody who votes for this should take the outrage of the N.R.A. and wear it proudly,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, who drafted the provision as a separate bill and fought for it to be included in the Violence Against Women Act.
Ms. Dingell — whose husband, John D. Dingell Jr., who died this year, served on the N.R.A.’s board of directors — has spoken powerfully of her experiences as a child, cowering in the closet in fear of her father, who struggled with mental illness and had a gun.
“I am not someone who wants to take people’s guns away,” she said. “I have lived with a man that was an N.R.A. board member and with a man that shouldn’t have had a gun. And I want to stand up for both sides.”
The move to oppose the act comes as the N.R.A.’s power is increasingly being challenged on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country by gun control activists, including many students who have taken up the charge after the massacre last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia passed 67 new gun safety laws in 2018, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. On Capitol Hill, the House in February passed legislation expanding background checks to cover nearly all gun purchases — the first significant gun safety measure in 25 years.
Even in the Republican-controlled Senate, Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, convened a hearing last week on “red flag laws” or extreme risk protection orders that allow family members and law enforcement officers to obtain court restraining orders to remove firearms from people who have been identified as a risk to themselves or others.
So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing extreme risk protection orders. Mr. Graham said he is working on legislation to create incentives for states to enact such bills. Ms. Baker said the N.R.A. agrees with the idea in theory but has not supported any of the state laws because of “serious due process concerns.”
The idea has gained traction in some unlikely places — including the White House, where President Trump embraced it when Vice President Mike Pence raised it during a meeting with lawmakers after the school massacre in Parkland.
“Or Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Pence, adding, “because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns early.”
[Interesting how even the Trump-haters are down with this misguided view. The President needs to take a breath and think about the consequences of nullifying four provisions in the Bill of Rights, as well as the 14th Amendment.]