COVID-19, Domestic Violence, and Guns

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Trapped at home with their abusers, victims must rely on programs whose long-term funding remains in doubt.

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As the coronavirus pandemic requires home isolation, victims and survivors of domestic violence find themselves in greater danger. Advocates have warned that home containment measures could lead to an increase in domestic violence incidents and the severity of abuse.

In response, lawmakers have urged congressional leaders to increase funding for domestic violence programs. These programs—including the National Domestic Violence Hotline, rape crisis centers, and shelters for victims—have traditionally been funded under the authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). And yet the funding authorizations in VAWA for these programs expired over a year ago.

VAWA, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994, is designed to protect victims of domestic and sexual abuse. In addition to providing federal grant funding to support programs in communities across the country, VAWA has made several changes to federal law. Congress must renew the law every five years to reauthorize funding for VAWA grant programs. Although funding can continue under special circumstances, such as continuing resolutions, reauthorization is necessary to ensure stable long-term funding.

Unlike the funding authorizations, which must be renewed, the changes in federal law made by VAWA do not “expire.” But each time Congress has reauthorized VAWA, it made additional changes to the law in an effort to improve and update protections. In 2018—and again in 2019—the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the law before it would lapse. That bill has since stalled in the U.S. Senate because of a new provision that would restrict abusive partners from accessing firearms.

Despite support from several House Republicans, the Republican-led Senate would not consider the reauthorization bill. U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) spent months negotiating with each other in the hope of introducing a bipartisan bill together. VAWA’s authorizations expired in February 2019, but by the end of last year, the two sides had still not come to an agreement. As a result, Feinstein introduced the House version into the Senate late last year, but Ernst blocked a vote on the bill and introduced her own version.

Today, there are two competing proposals before the U.S. Senate—one from Feinstein, and one from Ernst.

Feinstein’s bill is identical to the House version and includes a provision that the National Rifle Association (NRA) opposes. Under current law, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose access to firearms if they have a child with their victim or if they are or were formerly married to or legally residing with their victim. But abusive dating partners—typically boyfriends—can still purchase and possess guns even if they have been convicted of domestic abuse. Feinstein’s bill would close this “boyfriend loophole” by barring those convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a dating partner from buying or owning firearms. In addition, all individuals convicted of stalking offenses would lose their access to firearms.

Ernst, who has disclosed publicly that she is a survivor of rape and domestic violence, argues that the Democrats decided to put “politics ahead of people” by introducing the House version of the bill, which brought partisan issues into what has always been a bipartisan law. She claimed that the House version will never pass the Senate. The major issue for Ernst and other Senate Republicans is the provision that restricts abusive domestic partners’ access to firearms. Ernst’s bill excludes that provision.

Feinstein rejects the argument that Democrats have turned VAWA into a partisan issue. The bill, she says, “was written by the people on the front lines helping victims.” She argues that “it is not a Democratic bill or a Republican bill, it is a bill crafted by and for survivors who know exactly what’s needed in the real world.” Feinstein and other supporters of the House version of the bill point to research showing, for example, that nearly half of all partner homicides are committed by dating partners and that access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abusive partner will kill his female victim.

Survivors and advocates claim that it is Ernst who sided with politics—and the NRA—instead of survivors. The NRA argues the new provision is “too broad and ripe for abuse” and “scored” lawmakers votes on VAWA.

Given that 2020 is an election year, it is unlikely that either side will change their position on the reauthorization of VAWA.

In the meantime, although authorizations of VAWA programs have expired, some—but not all—programs have remained funded—at least so far. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has these programs in “unchartered territory.” And as more states issue stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of the virus, more victims are forced to remain inside with their abuser. Meanwhile, programs are struggling to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances and regulations.

In New York, for example, shelters are categorized as essential services. But many shelters are at or almost at capacity, and may have to turn away newcomers soon to avoid overcrowding at shelters.

Advocates are remotely preparing victims who cannot leave abusive home situations for worst case scenarios. A “safety plancould include strategies for keeping arguments out of the kitchen or other dangerous spaces in their home. Increasingly, conversations between victims and their advocates and counselors are moving to chat or text, as some people are unable to speak on the phone safely.

Even as progress toward VAWA’s reauthorization has stalled, Congress did include increased funding for domestic violence shelters and hotlines in the recent relief package.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available around the clock and in more than 200 languages: Call 1-800-799-SAFE, text LOVEIS to 22522, or chat with their advocates here. For immediate dangers, call 911.