Closing the “Boyfriend Loophole”: Bipartisan Solutions to Renewing the Violence Against Women Act

Most of us know someone that has been a victim of domestic violence. Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced and reported violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.[1] One of the key pieces of legislation that addresses domestic violence is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has been pending reauthorization since 2019. October is designated as the National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and so I think it’s worth exploring bipartisan strategies to renew the Violence Against Women Act.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was coauthored by Senator Joe Biden, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and backed by Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R- UT) in 1990 to bring the issue of gender-based violence to the attention of the American public.[2] The act was eventually passed as part of the broader Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That 1994 version of the law included a focus on preventative measures against rape and battering, including funding for victim’s services like shelters, as well as education programs on topics such as domestic violence, rape prevention, and preventing the sexual abuse of homeless youth.[3] It also included the first criminal law against battering and required all states to enforce protection orders issued anywhere in the country.[4]

The law has undergone numerous changes in its subsequent reauthorizations. In 2000, the Civil Rights remedy portion of the law, that allowed women to file suit against gender-based crimes in civil court (rather than criminal), was thrown out by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison on the grounds that it violated both the Commerce Clause and the 14th Amendment.[5] Reauthorizations in 2005 and 2013 have gone on to include protections for Native Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrant women. Such policy changes authorized Native American tribes to prosecute domestic violence and increased funding for testing backlogged rape kits.[6] Since VAWA became law in 1994, there has been a 64% decrease in intimate partner violence (from 1994 to 2010)[7] and over $4 billion in VAWA grants have been awarded to state, tribal, and local governments, non-profit organizations, and universities.[8] 

Reauthorization bills have faced trouble in previous renewal cycles. In the past, especially during the 2013 renewal process, certain policy objectives have been opposed by conservative Republicans. These include expanding the protections to same-sex couples or granting visas to battered undocumented immigrants.[9] This time, Congress is once again at a crossroads, and reauthorization has stalled because of gun rights. The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2018 without action, but on April 4, 2019, a version of a reauthorization bill passed the House of Representatives with provisions for closing what is colloquially referred to as “the boyfriend loophole”.[10]

The boyfriend loophole exists in domestic violence legislation because intimate partners are only defined as couples who are married, live, or have a child together. Therefore, trying to close the boyfriend loophole means preventing those who are convicted of abusing, assaulting, or stalking a dating partner (or have a court restraining order) from buying or owning a firearm.[11] This new provision is opposed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), and it has placed pressure on lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate to stall the bill by publishing a scorecard rating the legislators’ stance on the issue, and either rewarding or working to defeat them in upcoming elections. 

As has been reported in the media, this attempt to close the boyfriend loophole has been the biggest obstacle to approving a bipartisan solution for a VAWA reauthorization. One solution to this gridlock could be compromise with the NRA, in exchange for withdrawing its legislative scorecard[12], in order to advance the legislation. The NRA has stated its desire that legislators would fast track concealed-carry license applications for women who are victims of domestic violence[13]. NRA advocates believe that this kind of legislation empowers victims of domestic violence and provides them immediate protection, while opponents argue that these laws make volatile situations worse.[14]

Another potential solution includes renewing the already existing version of VAWA to renew the funding for domestic violence shelters and other protections, then working to pass additional legislation. These include the “Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act” (H.R.569)[15] and S.855 “Closing the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole Act of 2019”[16] which together work to further policy solutions that would be included in an updated VAWA renewal. Unfortunately, because the two proposed bills sitting in the Senate conflict with one another, rollback of VAWA may be a possibility. One, S.2843, serves as a companion to the House bill[17] and the other, S.2920,[18] rolls back existing protections.

Ultimately, preventing domestic violence is not a political issue but rather a human rights issue. Discussing bipartisan solutions to renewing the Violence Against Women Act can help us solve these important issues in the event of gridlock.

-E.R.D.


[1] National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Division of Violence Prevention. 2015. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release.https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/2015data-brief508.pdf (October 15, 2020).

[2] Law, Tara. 2019. “What to Know on Joe Biden and the Violence Against Women Act.” Time. https://time.com/5675029/violence-against-women-act-history-biden/ (October 15, 2020).

[3] Lynch, Amy. “Violence Against Women Act.” Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Violence-Against-Women-Act (October 17, 2020). 

[4] “History of VAWA.” Legal Momentum. https://www.legalmomentum.org/history-vawa (October 15, 2020). 

[5] “United States v. Morrison.” Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/99-5.ZS.html (October 15, 2020). 

[6] Law, Tara. 2019. “What to Know on Joe Biden and the Violence Against Women Act.” Time. https://time.com/5675029/violence-against-women-act-history-biden/ (October 15, 2020). 

[7] U.S. Justice Department. Office of Justice Programs. Bureau of Justice Statistics. November 2012. Intimate Partner Violence, 1993–2010. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ipv9310.pdf (October 15, 2020)

[8] “History of VAWA.” Legal Momentum. https://www.legalmomentum.org/history-vawa (October 15, 2020). 

[9] Weisman, Jonathan. 2012. “Women Figure Anew in Senate’s Latest Battle.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/us/politics/violence-against-women-act-divides-senate.html (October 15, 2020). 

[10] Bass, Karen. 2019. “Cosponsors – H.R.1585 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1585/cosponsors?searchResultViewType=expanded (October 15, 2020). 

[11] Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. 2019. “Why the N.R.A. Opposes New Domestic Abuse Legislation.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/us/politics/nra-domestic-violence-congress.html (October 15, 2020). 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Wulfsohn, Joseph. 2019. “Democrats, NRA Battle over Gun Provision of Violence Against Women Act.” Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/democrats-nra-battle-over-gun-provision-of-violence-against-women-act (October 15, 2020). 

[14] Jeltsen, Melissa. 2017. “The NRA Wants To Solve Domestic Violence By Arming Victims. It Probably Won’t Work.” HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/nra-guns-domestic-violence_n_5967dd57e4b01741862645f2 (October 17, 2020).

[15] Dingell, Debbie. 2019. “H.R.569 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act of 2019.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/569/all-info (October 17, 2020). 

[16] Blumenthal, Richard. 2019. “S.855 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Closing the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole Act of 2019.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/855 (October 17, 2020). 

[17] Feinstein, Dianne. 2019. “S.2843 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2843 (October 17, 2020). 

[18] Ernst, Joni. 2019. “S.2920 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019.” Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2920/text (October 17, 2020).

Image Sources

VAWA For All- https://www.thehotline.org/resources/violence-against-women-act-vawa/

Boyfriend Loophole Legislation by State- https://www.thetrace.org/features/gun-violence-facts-and-solutions/

IPV Violence Infographic*- https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/fastfact.html

*Note that this infographic is taken from data presented in a previous report, not the most recent. The change in the data demonstrates how incidences of IPV during women’s lifetimes have gone up 5 percent, but have gone down 4.3 percent in males lives.

One thought on “Closing the “Boyfriend Loophole”: Bipartisan Solutions to Renewing the Violence Against Women Act

  1. V Hudson says:

    Wow, this is a really informative blogpost! There is so much here that I did not know. Kudos to the author! And may all 50 states close that boyfriend loophole!

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