The bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act includes a provision making it easier to take away guns from violent offenders even if they are not a spouse or domestic partner. The amendment closes the so-called "boyfriend loophole" by barring those convicted of abusing, assaulting or stalking a current or former dating partner from buying or owning a firearm.
Supporters said the measure was crucial to protect women in the United States, who die from gun violence at rates far higher than other high-income countries. But the National Rifle Association and some Republicans called the measure a political trap intended to portray gun-rights supporters as anti-women.
The House approved the bill, 263-158, sending it to the Senate. Thirty-three Republicans joined with Democrats to support the bill. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota was the only Democrat to oppose it.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of intentionally allowing the domestic violence law to expire in February despite bipartisan support for extending it.
"Nancy Pelosi forced it to expire so she could use women as part of some political leverage," Scalise said at a news conference Thursday. He accused Pelosi, D-Calif., of trying to "use different groups of people as pawns in her political game."
Pelosi said the gun-control provisions were "common-sense reforms that will save lives and that no one should object to." Noting past Republican support for the law, Pelosi said, "There should be nothing partisan or political about ending the scourge of domestic violence and sexual assault, which one in three women faces today."
A spokeswoman for the NRA said the group "opposes domestic violence and all violent crime" and spends millions of dollars every year teaching Americans how to safely use firearms for self-defense. "The gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians are intentionally politicizing the Violence Against Women Act as a smoke screen to push their gun control agenda," said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker, who called the actions of Democratic leaders "appalling."
The NRA feels so strongly about the gun-control provision that it is evaluating the domestic violence law as a "key vote" that will help determine whether it will back a member a Congress for re-election.
Robin Lloyd, managing director of a gun-control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, said up to half of all domestic violence victims are abused by a dating partner, rather than a spouse or live-in boyfriend.
Lloyd called the gun-control amendment "truly a life-saving provision," adding that gaps in federal law allowing abusers and stalkers to obtain guns are "a key driver of the staggering levels of lethal violence against women in the U.S." An estimated 4.5 million women have been threatened with a gun by an intimate partner, and nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner, Lloyd said.
Under current federal law, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose their guns if they are currently or formerly married to their victim, live with the victim, have a child together or are a victim's parent or guardian. The proposed amendment would extend the provision to stalkers and current or former dating partners.
If lawmakers are trying to save lives, "Why would you not close a simple loophole that says if someone has been convicted of domestic violence or stalking that they not have access to a gun?" asked Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.
Dingell, who recalls hiding in a closet from her gun-wielding, mentally ill father, said she knows what it's like to live in a home where someone "can snap at a minute's notice and suddenly the gun is pointed at your mother or pointed at you."
She disputed claims that the amendment was intended to embarrass or "trap" gun-rights supporters or portray them as anti-women. "Sometimes things are as simple as this: I know that fear. I know that terror, and I just want to save another family from going though that terror," she said.
Democrats defeated a proposal by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., to extend the current law for a year. "Ending violence against women should not be partisan, but unfortunately House Democrats have politicized it," Stefanik said as House Republicans cheered. "Scoring political points" should not be prioritized over saving the lives of women and children, she said.
Republicans also contended that the proposed law could force prisons to house some male prisoners with women if the offender identifies as a woman and force domestic-abuse shelters to house transgender women alongside female victims.
"These policies are nuts!" said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. Democrats defeated a proposal by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., a domestic violence survivor, to ensure that access to prisons and shelters corresponds with biological sex assigned at birth.