Some said it would be too hard – impossible, even.
Two decades ago, a broad and brave coalition of determined women’s advocates, domestic violence survivors and fair-minded leaders in Congress set out to do what some said could not be done: pass a law that helped protect women and their families from the scourge of domestic violence.
The proposal, called the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), took badly needed steps toward protecting women. It gave judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials new tools to combat violence; it strengthened services for survivors and their families; and, for the first time under federal law, ensured that dangerous individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders couldn’t have easy access to guns.
Still, securing the needed support for the law was no easy fight. There was obstruction, willful misrepresentation, and needless gridlock. Entrenched special interests sprang into action; inaction was their goal.
But Americans made their voices heard, and Congress passed VAWA with the votes of Democrats and Republicans alike. And so, 20 years ago this weekend, then-President Bill Clinton made the Violence Against Women Act the law of the land – a real victory of common sense and courage over the status quo.
Since its passage, VAWA has been a staggering success in making our communities safer. Annual rates of domestic violence have dropped by more than half. The law has saved lives and kept guns out of the hands of countless domestic abusers.
But 20 years later, there is still more work to do to make women safer from gun violence.
Because of VAWA and subsequent updates to the law, individuals who are under domestic violence protection orders or have misdemeanor domestic violence convictions can’t legally buy or own guns. But even though many couples are choosing to marry later in life, our laws haven’t been updated to address dating partner abuse. And convicted stalkers can still get guns.
With such glaring loopholes in our gun laws, guns sometimes fall into the wrong hands – and the results for women are often tragic.
Most of the time, women are murdered with guns by someone they know, either by a family member or an intimate partner, like a former or current husband or boyfriend. In domestic abuse situations, if the abuser has access to a gun, it increases the chance that a woman will die by 500 percent.
This is one reason why American women are 11 times more likely to be shot to death than their peers in other countries, and why more American women were killed by gunfire by a partner between 2001 and 2012 than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
That is not the America we strive for, is it?
That’s why it’s time for Congress to build on the legacy and success of the Violence Against Women Act by closing the loopholes that let dangerous stalkers and abusive dating partners buy guns.
There are several commonsense proposals before Congress right now that would help address the nexus of gun crime and domestic violence – and they would do nothing to limit the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.
In fact, for those of us who own guns and cherish our Second Amendment rights, these laws should be a welcome step. Because every time guns fall into the wrong hands and are used to intimidate, injure, or murder women, it erodes the rights of responsible gun owners everywhere.
Passing these laws wouldn’t prevent every act of gun violence against women, but there is no doubt they would save women’s lives. They are the commonsense thing to do.
Over the last two decades, the Violence Against Women Act has been reauthorized, improved, and updated several times. Sometimes, a small minority of legislators and powerful special interests – standing on the wrong side of history and far out of step with the vast majority of Americans – has fought it.
But each time, Democrats and Republicans have voted for commonsense and safety. And thankfully, each time they have prevailed.
With lots of hard work, and with reasonable Americans making their voices heard, I hope that a similar bipartisan group of leaders can forge the hard but necessary path of making America’s women safer from gun violence.
It won’t be easy. But it will save lives.
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is the Co-Founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions.