WASHINGTON — The Violence Against Women Act isn’t supposed to be controversial. But the landmark 1994 law, set for re-authorization, has hit an NRA-sized snag: The gun lobby opposes the measure and is threatening to hold any lawmaker who votes for it accountable in the next election.
The NRA is up in arms over a new provision dubbed the “boyfriend loophole” that’s aimed at blocking anyone convicted of physically assaulting or even stalking a former lover from obtaining firearms. Democratic leaders slid that provision into the bill once they gained control of the House this year. (The VAWA bill lapsed in the midst of the government shutdown, so it has to be reauthorized by Congress.)
The provision is forcing House Republicans to choose: Vote against a wildly popular bill this week, or risk the powerful gun lobby slapping a target on their backs in 2020. But with the NRA’s power on the wane, the bill is attracting support from the GOP, particularly moderates in suburban swing districts.
“With all the increase in shootings, we have to do something legislatively to try to prevent that from happening,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) told VICE News. “I don’t think that should be controversial. I don’t think that should be political. You can protect the Second Amendment and protect the community simultaneously.”
Fitzpatrick is a former FBI agent who represents a suburban Philadelphia district. He was one of only a few moderate Republicans to hold onto their seats in the midst of the blue wave that crested for Democrats last November.
While many Republicans are now on the fence on the bill, in part because of the pressure from the NRA, Fitzpatrick says he’s proudly championing the measure as he talks with colleagues ahead of a potential Wednesday vote on final passage. He says part of his role is combating the misinformation campaign against the legislation, which includes talking points that the measure would strip due process rights away from average gun owners, and not merely those who’ve been convicted of domestic violence or stalking.
“Unfortunately, you get a lot of people that opine on legislation that they haven’t even read yet,” he said while walking across the Capitol grounds. “I’m not just a vote for this bill. I’m a voice for it, and I’m trying to get as many of my colleagues on board as possible.”
It’s not just moderates, though. The legislation is even finding sympathetic Republican voices of support across the nation, even in Texas, where the Second Amendment and the NRA still maintain lots of clout.
“I understand their issue. I understand what the NRA is saying. But the overall importance of it — I mean, all you have to do is look at the statistics on violence against women, and it’s enormous. It’s increasing, not decreasing,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) told VICE News.
The majority of Republicans will likely end up siding with the NRA, even on a bill initially passed in 1994 aimed at enhancing the resources and protections to women and after the party got pummeled on gun-control issues in House races last cycle.
“I think the Democrats are more interested in having a gotcha vote then they are in actually solving a problem”
“I think the Democrats are more interested in having a gotcha vote then they are in actually solving a problem,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) said. “I’m not sure how much of a mandate the Democrats had, other than many people wanted to send a message to Donald Trump. And to me, that was not an endorsement of their entire agenda by any means.”
But the inclusion of that gun-control provision, along with a provision aimed at allowing members of the transgender community to have a say in whether they’re sent to a male or female prison, is putting many Republicans in a spot they don’t want to be in.
“I don’t know a person who doesn’t support women and wants to prevent violence against women, and if that’s the mission and that’s the purpose of the bill, then why don’t you just focus on that — as opposed to opening up these additional riders or changes because you want to maximize political leverage,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said.
Reed is leaning toward supporting the measure, but he accuses Democrats of playing politics with it by inserting contentious political issues in the mix. Still, he denies the NRA’s opposition and their promise to scorecard – or track and punish those who cross them and support it – is top-of-mind for him or many other Republicans.
“The heart of Republican support for the Secnd Amendment is policy-based,” Reed said. “It’s not the NRA and a scorecard.”
The national debate on guns has changed, especially after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, sparked a protest movement led by teenage survivors who have used social media to keep the heat on lawmakers and keep the conversation in the national dialogue. Still, even senior Democrats are waiting and watching this week to see if the NRA’s clout has been diminished here in Washington.
“I think the young people who stood up, the Parkland kids, they were first-rate and we’re wise to take a lead from them,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Either follow their lead or get out of their way. I think, coming from these young people and their willingness to take on the NRA, they’ve shown great courage. In many respects, more courage than members of Congress.”
Cover image: Attendees browse Bushmaster Firearms International LLC rifles at the company's booth during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Dallas, on Saturday, May 5, 2018. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)