[GOA editor's note: No one may own a gun while under a restraining order.]
At a June 10th Judiciary Committee hearing on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), analysis of the current law was punctuated by emotional testimony from women's advocates, many of whom had personal experience with domestic and sexual violence incidents.
Gabrielle Union, a young Hollywood actress, described how she had been attacked and raped at age 19 while she was working in a shoe store. Ann Burke, president and founder of the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund, detailed her daughter's tragic murder at the hands of her boyfriend. Collene Campbell, former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, fought back tears as she described the horrible murders of her only son, her brother and her sister-in-law.
These women have one thing in common: they all believe that the key to preventing future violence and advocating for victims lay with Congress reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2011. VAWA is $3.9 billion program that provides domestic violence education, advocacy and support programs for victimized women, and lobbies for stricter domestic violence laws.
Proponents of the Act claim that it has significantly decreased the amount of intimate partner violence against women since it was passed in 1994. "Domestic violence has dropped by 50 percent, instances of rape are down by 60 percent, the number of women killed by an abusive husband or boyfriend is down 22 percent," said Senator Edward Kaufman (D-Del.).
However, critics say that Sen. Kaufman's statistics may be misleading. The numbers don't take into account that since the early 1980s, violent crimes of all kind-from robbery to assault-have fallen dramatically. The drop in violence committed by domestic partners follows the same exact downward trend as violence committed by friends and strangers-even though billions of dollars more have been poured solely into preventing domestic partner violence.
Opponents of VAWA claim that it has been largely ineffective because the legislation has been more concerned with promoting a feminist, anti-male ideology than helping victims of violent crimes. "It's a mystery why Republicans continue to put a billion dollars a year of taxpayer'' money into the hands of radical feminists who use it to preach their anti-marriage and anti-male ideology, promote divorce, corrupt the family court system, and engage in liberal political advocacy...There is no evidence that the Violence Against Women Act has benefited anyone except the radical feminists on its payroll," wrote prominent legal scholar and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in 2005.
There is also widespread concern that VAWA is destructive to families. According to a watchdog group called Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting (RADAR) , "[The] Violence Against Women Act establishes the legal framework to create perverse incentives, make false claims of abuse, escalate partner conflict, and discourage partner reconciliation. The end result is to break up families and separate children from one of their parents."
In many states, a woman does not need to claim that she has been physically abused in order to receive a restraining order-she can claim emotional abuse or "fear" of physical abuse. One 1995 study conducted by the Massachusetts Trial Court found that less than half the restraining orders issued in that state contained even an allegation of physical abuse. A more recent 2003 Campbell County, West Virginia study by the Virginia Crime Commission showed that 81 percent of restraining orders issued in that area were unnecessary or based on fabrications.
Restraining orders can force a defendant to vacate his home, workplace, and even prevent him from seeing his children, all without due process of law. Often a judge will issue a restraining order immediately, without notifying the accused party or giving him a chance to defend himself in court.
According to RADAR, VAWA-funded training programs for judges often advise their classes to ignore due process when issuing restraining orders. "One New Jersey training program...explicitly instructed judges to ignore due process protections. One presenter, a sitting judge, dispensed this advice: 'Your job is not to become concerned about all the constitutional rights of the man that you're violating as you grant a restraining order. Throw him out on the street, give him the clothes on his back, and tell him, 'See ya around.'"
And while horror stories were abound from female victims of violent crimes at the VAWA hearing, there was a notable absence of testimony from men affected by the act. On the internet, however, their stories are numerous.
One man, whose name was withheld, told an ABC affiliate in Boston that he was denied a government job due to a fraudulent restraining order that had been filed against him. Restraining orders, even if proven false, still remain on an individual's permanent criminal record.
Another Massachusetts man, Hal Wittner was prevented from seeing his children and denied an evidentiary hearing for over four years due to an allegedly illegitimate restraining order, reported MassOutrage.com.
In 2005, a man named Lewis Barber had a restraining order issued against him by his wife, on the grounds that Barber "owned a collection of Civil War-era fire arms" and seven years earlier had "fired shots in his attic," said RADAR.
Advocates for VAWA say that they just want to see victims get the rights they deserve. "We have to make human beings a priority," said Union, arguing that the United States is like a "third world country" when it comes to finding justice for female victims of violence.
However, it still remains to be seen if those who claim to have had their due process rights violated by VAWA will get a similar chance to voice their grievances to the Senate before the reauthorization of the act is voted on.
Alana Goodman is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.