It Took an Act of Congress to Address Violence Against Women

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which was a result of extensive grassroots efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The VAWA was drafted by the office of then Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) with support from a broad coalition of advocacy groups. The Act passed Congress with bipartisan support in 1994. After being renewed with little resistance in 2000 and 2005, Congress let the Act expire in 2011. The problems centered around disagreements about expanded protections for gays and lesbians, Native Americans and illegal immigrants.

On March 7, 2013, President Barack Obama signed expanded protections for domestic violence victims into law renewing and strengthening the Act. The revitalized VAWA marked an important win for gay rights advocates and Native Americans, who will have new protections under this revised law.

Over 35 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted laws addressing domestic and sexual violence, and stalking in the workplace. Domestic violence laws vary widely in this country where more than half of all women murdered with guns are killed by their intimate partners. This means there are women in some states who may be without laws specific to domestic violence.

Important facts to know: Women in America are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other democratic countries with developed economies. Most of the time, women are murdered with guns by someone they know. The FBI estimates that in 2010, 64% of women murdered with guns were killed by a current or former intimate partner.

One thing is clear: Domestic abusers should not have access to firearms. But abusers can easily sidestep background checks by purchasing from private sellers, or shopping for weapons at a gun show, and efforts to close those loopholes have been thwarted. Furthermore, it is common that the partner is unaware a weapon is in the home. But far worse is the terrifying knowledge the gun is there and the abuser can and will use the weapon to brutally intimidate and torture.

However, legally prohibiting domestic abusers from purchasing guns is toothless if states do not provide all records of prohibited abusers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). And the Center for American Progress (CAP) report has found that only three states appear to be submitting “reasonably complete” records – Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

In many fatal shootings occurring in the context of a domestic or intimate partner relationship, women are not the only victims. “Shooters have often made children, police officers, and their broader communities, additional targets of what begins as an intimate partner shooting. In fact, one study found that more than half of the mass shootings in recent years have started with or involved the shooting of an intimate partner or a family member. Enacting a comprehensive set of laws and enforcement strategies to disarm domestic abusers and stalkers will reduce the number of women who are murdered by abusers with guns—and it will make all Americans safer.”— Chelsea Parsons and Lauren Speigel, of the Center for American Progress

People unfamiliar with the cycle of violence often ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” instead of asking, “Why did he abuse her?” This places the responsibility to change behavior with the partner being abused. What follows is a brief explanation of the dynamics involved in a cycle of violence that continuously repeats.

Tension in the abuser builds. Any event could be a catalyst for the ensuing violence, which runs the gamut from verbal abuse to violent beatings causing major physical damage.

She is made to feel the abuse is her fault. She did “something” wrong and deserves to be punished for as long as his anger lasts and she is totally cowed.

The abuser then apologizes and pleads that he’ll never do it again. He begs for her forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential to the abuser—psychologically that is what he must have.

The partner, believing it was really her fault, forgives, believes and hopes. The cycle repeats randomly. She never knows when, what or for how long.

If and when she gains the courage to leave, then she is in the most danger, because the abuser believes she is at fault and now has deserted him. At the core it is essential to him that she forgive him …or else the tension continues to build until he is out of control. At this juncture, if the abuser has access to a firearm, a potential tragedy could result.

Toni Wellen is the chair of the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence. She lives in Carpinteria.