ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There was an emotional debate on the House floor today, just before a vote to renew the Violence Against Women Act. The new version would prohibit anyone convicted of a misdemeanor charge of domestic abuse from ever owning a gun; the NRA opposes the bill for that reason. Here's Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell on the floor asking Republicans to support the bill.
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DEBBIE DINGELL: Do not let the NRA bully you. This is not a poison pill.
SHAPIRO: In the end, 33 Republicans split with the NRA. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now. Hi, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK, 33 Republicans voting for the bill, with nearly all the Democrats - put that number in context for us.
DAVIS: Well, it's more than even some Republicans expected it to be. I talked to Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick just after the vote. He's the only Republican to cosponsor the bill. And this is what he told me.
BRIAN FITZPATRICK: I did a lot of work, I'll tell you that (laughter), because I was the only cosponsor on it. So we had to get a lot of people who were not cosponsors of the bill comfortable enough with it. And you know, it's a good number. I mean, it's not good enough. It's - well, it should've been unanimous, as far as I'm concerned.
DAVIS: Now, Fitzpatrick clearly supports changes to gun laws; not all of the 33 Republicans who sided with him agree with that. But this is why this vote was so interesting, and the fascinating politics of the vote is that you have a lot of Republicans who were more fearful of casting a vote against something called the Violence Against Women Act that protects domestic abuse survivors than they were against breaking with the NRA. Now, this is a law that is renewed every five years. It's one of the most popular things the Congress can do, and I think it speaks to the political reality of some things you just can't be against.
SHAPIRO: Well, explain what exactly the gun law changes are in this bill that the NRA opposes.
DAVIS: OK, so right now - current law - if you're convicted of a felony charge of domestic abuse or stalking, you are prohibited from ever owning a firearm; the bill would expand that to apply to misdemeanor convictions on those same two charges. It also closes something that's come to be known as the boyfriend loophole, to expand those gun ownership prohibitions to include dating partners. The NRA's argument against those changes is that they say it's simply too low of a threshold to trigger a permanent prohibition on your Second Amendment rights.
Fitzpatrick has been a fairly lonely voice in the party pushing back on that NRA argument. He is a former law enforcement officer. Again, here he is.
FITZPATRICK: As you know, I spent 14 years as an FBI agent. The best predictor of future crime is past crime, misdemeanor or felony; it all ought to be in there.
DAVIS: So I do want to make clear that the NRA, essentially all Republicans, every Democrat, they support the Violence Against Women Act. The underlying law is not what's controversial; it's these gun changes. And without any agreement, the law may not be renewed for some time.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like a really tough political issue for Republicans, who are trying to win back support of women voters who turned their back on the party in the midterms.
DAVIS: So three of the no votes against the bill were Republican women; another would've voted against it, but she wasn't here today. So about four of the 13 Republican in the House oppose it. Now, that sounds like a small number because there's only 13 Republican women in the house. But if you think about it, that's 30 percent of Republican women sided with Democrats on this. So I do think it speaks to the gender divide.
You don't really see Democrats breaking much of a sweat here, even though the law has technically expired, but the programs are still funded. You know, they get a political win. This is the party making good on their campaign promises to tighten gun laws and protect women. And yes, it gives them a pretty good opportunity to continue to try and drive a political wedge between the Republican Party and women voters.
SHAPIRO: We've been talking about the House - in a couple seconds, what about the Senate?
DAVIS: There's no bill yet. They've put two women - Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California - and they're working on a competing version.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.