Today in 1994: Anti-crime law enacts Violence Against Women Act and Federal Assault Weapons Ban

September 13, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryIn our Today in Legal History series, we sometimes cover topics that have little bearing on current events.  On the other hand, we also often tackle topics that are still relevant today.

On very rare occasions, we are lucky enough to have a historical event that encompasses several topics that continue to be important today.

In case you were still wondering, today is one of those rare occasions.  On this day in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The VCCLEA contained a variety of different provisions, all related to, unsurprisingly, fighting violent crime and supporting law enforcement.

The more well-known provisions include the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (commonly referred to as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA), and the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was widely known to do just that: it banned the manufacture of certain “assault weapons” for use by civilians.

Assault Rifle“Assault weapons” were defined as firearms containing two or more features that gave them the appearance and largely the functions of military firearms (something like the gun portrayed in the photo to the left).

The ban again rose to prominence during the 2004 presidential election, since it was scheduled to expire on September 13, 2004, exactly ten years after it was enacted.  Despite several attempts to extend the ban, it lapsed as scheduled.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December of 2012, there was a renewed effort to reinstate the AWB.  This attempt was, again, unsuccessful.

Despite the failure to reinstate the ban since its 2004 expiration, the AWB actually passed the House separately from the VCCLEA on May 5, 1994, by a razor-slim two vote margin.  Many observers attribute the lack of success of a new federal assault weapons ban largely to the rise in power of gun lobbies such as the National Rifle Association.

In any case, the issue of a federal assault weapons ban remains highly divisive and contentious today.

The next section of VCCLEA, the Violence Against Women Act, has also made headlines earlier this year, when it was reauthorized (after some notable opposition) in February.

VAWA was drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden as a measure to crack down on violence against women while improving protections for the victims of such violence.

The Act increased law enforcement training on sexual and domestic violence, strengthened federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, and created the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW).  Operating within the Department of Justice, the mission of the OVW is “to provide federal leadership in developing the nation’s capacity to reduce violence against women and administer justice for and strengthen services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.”

VAWA also created a federal rape shield law that limits a defendant’s ability to cross-examine rape complainants about their past sexual behavior.

The 2013 extension of VAWA included additional provisions that, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “will close critical gaps in services and justice.”  Among these gaps closed are expanded protections for LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants.

However, one of the original provisions of VAWA, one that allowed victims of sexual or domestic violence the right to sue their attackers in federal civil court, has not survived.  That provision was famously struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000’s U.S. v. Morrison as being beyond Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.

VAWA wasn’t the only provision of the VCCLEA to find its way before the Supreme Court: interpretation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act was at the center of this past term’s Maracich v. Spears decision.  The DPPA prohibits the disclosure of driver’s license information without the consent of the information’s owner, and Maracich held that the attorneys sued in the case were not entitled to any of the exemptions under the Act (see these two posts for more on Maracich).

Nor was VAWA the only provision to strengthen punishments for federal crimes: the Federal Death Penalty Act created 60 new death penalty offenses for violent crimes, such as those related to terrorism or murder of a federal law enforcement officer.  1995 Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed for the murder of eight federal law enforcement agents under the FDPA.

There are many more minor provisions of VCCLEA that I haven’t discussed, but suffice it to say, the 19 year old law has made quite an impact in a variety of different areas of controversial political issues, and continues to do so today.