U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., held a press conference focusing on protecting victims of domestic violence and stalking from gun violence at the Washtenaw County SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor Saturday morning.
The discussion centered around the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress passed last month. VAWA, originally passed in 1994, was previously reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013. The reauthorization must now pass in the Senate.
In the current version of VAWA, only individuals convicted of abusing a spouse — not a partner — are prohibited from buying or owning a gun.
The reauthorized bill includes a provision to terminate this issue, commonly referred to as the “boyfriend loophole,” by also preventing those who have been convicted of abusing a “non-marital” from buying or owning a gun. Additionally, the bill would prevent those convicted of stalking from possessing a gun.
In her introductory remarks, Dingell said partnerships between local and national government as well as law enforcement are vital to continue the discussion on sexual assault.
“It’s an important time to have a discussion on this issue,” Dingell said. “We can’t do this without resources, and we all know how important it is.”
Klobuchar said including gun violence in VAWA emphasizes the seriousness of the issue.
As a member of the judiciary committee, Klobuchar said she has helped advocate for sexual assault kits and funding for domestic violence cases. Historically, Klobuchar said, domestic violence has been a bipartisan issue.
“This is something where Republicans voted for this — dozens of them — and so we have a good chance of getting this done,” Klobuchar said. “Sometimes we’ve got to do things that we cheer on advocacy. Right now, we’re cheering on actually passing this, and we’re on the cusp of that.”
SafeHouse Executive Director Barbara Niess-May also spoke on the urgency of the domestic violence and gun violence issue.
According to SafeHouse, an average of 60 women are killed by an intimate partner in Michigan each year, ranking 26th in the country. In 2016, 1,651 women were murdered by an intimate partner in the United States.
“The reality is that right here in our own community, SafeHouse Center is serving over 6,000 survivors every single year, which is too many,” Niess-May said. “We are seeking to get more into the prevention part, but right now we’re having to make sure we’re here for each and every one of those survivors who are trying to figure out their next steps.”
Emily Sioma, Miss Michigan 2018 and University alum, also emphasized the importance of bringing the conversation of sexual assault to the forefront of discussion.
Sioma, who went viral during the 2018 Miss America Pageant for bringing attention to the Flint water crisis, was sexually assaulted during her time as a student at the University.. Through publicly sharing her story, Sioma said she felt she was a voice for those who had similar experiences.
“In real life, people are much more welcome and open to having this conversation, or at least starting the conversation,” Sioma said. “It made me realize that especially talking about gun violence and violence against women, it’s changed a lot of people’s perspectives as this isn’t just a women’s issue: this is everyone’s issue.”
Eddie Washington, Department of Public Safety and Security executive director, shared his perspective. He said he is more focused on prevention than on response to sexual assault cases.
“Any time we have to do a response, that means we have a victim,” Washington said. “I think that for us, the big shift for me was to shift a lot of resources into a space … where we send out specialists to do more proactive education and awareness in ways that inform officers.”
According to Brian Mackie, Washtenaw County prosecuting attorney, sexual assault cases are the most common cases in Washtenaw County. He expressed support for the reauthorization, saying the cause needs to reach a wider audience.
“I also get the criticism that I’m not an expert on guns,” Mackie said. “Well, I have become an expert on bullets and what they can do to the human body.”
Mackie later said progress is not a straight line and activists must continue to stay involved for the reauthorization to become enacted by the VAWA to be passed by the Senate.
Additionally, Emily Durbin, a volunteer with the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, discussed the impact of the gun violence crisis on women and children. Change is coming on the issue she said.
“So many people know a person who has been affected by gun violence, and many of them is this kind of situation: intimate partner violence, or where people grow up with gun violence in their home,” Durbin said. “There’s a lot of energy behind this that I think is untapped.”
At the conclusion of the conference, Dingell and Klobuchar both expressed confidence in the passing of the reauthorization.
“Five years ago, we couldn’t have gotten this loophole passed,” Dingell said. “We wouldn’t have touched it. We’re going to get it done.”