Speaking of Women's Rights: The Real Reason Washington State Failed to Pass a Bill to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Real Reason Washington State Failed to Pass a Bill to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors

By Martha Burwell

Legal Voice has been fighting, and winning, some tough battles for women’s rights in the Washington State Legislature. But when this year’s legislative session ended in March, the very popular SB 6151 that would have improved protections for sexual assault survivors was left unpassed. This left bipartisan supporters saying, “Wait, what just happened?”

What happened was not at all what you would have expected. But let’s start at the beginning.

Currently in Washington State, if someone is a victim of a sexual assault, they can, understandably, get a protection order to help keep their attacker away from them. This is called a SAPO, or a Sexual Assault Protection Order, and it only applies in non-domestic violence cases. The problem is that SAPOs only last a short two years, unlike other types of protection orders.

When nearing the end of the second year, the survivor has two options. First, they can let the SAPO expire, giving them the extra stress of not having legal protection to keep the perpetrator away from them. Alternatively, they can go back to court, through an often re-traumatizing process, and renew the protection order. This includes filing paperwork, and taking time off during a weekday to go to court. It likely includes seeing the perpetrator in person, and hearing about their behavior over the past year or more. It includes reviewing, again, whether the survivor should be protected, which may include the details of the assault. And often, it includes the cost of a lawyer. It is an exhausting, unfair burden to bear. Unsurprisingly, survivors will often move away, find a new job, or leave school to get away from the perpetrator, rather than endure this process.

But even if they do choose to go through the work and stress of renewing the protection order, it is again only valid for two years. They would have to repeat this process over and over, every two years, if they wanted to continually be protected from the person who assaulted them. And each time, there is no guarantee that the extension will be granted.

SB 6151 was meant to lift this burden. Instead of having a two-year expiration date, it would allow courts to issue SAPOs for longer periods of time—even permanently—so the survivor would not have to keep going back to court on a two-year schedule. They could rest just a bit easier, and get on with their lives.

This bill passed unanimously in the Washington State Senate during the 2016 legislative session. At a time when the Legislature can be sharply divided on partisan lines and no party controls both houses, that is no small feat. When everyone agrees on something in a starkly divided political world, it is clearly a commonsense idea. Unanimous votes in this setting are a rare and precious thing.

The next step was for the House of Representatives to confirm the bill. It was expected to sail right through, given the popularity it had in the Senate.

But they did not pass the bill. So, what happened? What went wrong?

Enter the National Rifle Association.

After the Senate approved the bill, the NRA lobby began to protest that if someone had a SAPO against them with no expiration date, this would restrict their gun ownership for life. And this, they simply wouldn’t have.

But here’s where the problem lies—their claim was not true.

As the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs clearly states in their Sexual Assault Protection Order guide, “a SAPO cannot order the offender to surrender any guns or weapons.”  

It’s that simple. This bill had absolutely nothing to do with firearm ownership.

It is true that Washington law requires a court when entering any type of protection order must require a person to surrender firearms if there is clear and convincing evidence that the person used a firearm in committing a felony, or previously committed an offense making him or her ineligible to possess a firearm. 

But that is a separate issue from whether a survivor is entitled to a sexual assault protection order.  And frankly—should there be any question that a person should be required to surrender firearms in cases where they used a firearm to commit a felony, or are already prohibited by law from owning a gun?

In short, the NRA didn’t do their homework. It appears they were confusing this bill with the law passed in 2014 that put restrictions on gun ownership of those who have domestic violence protection orders—rather than sexual assault protection orders—issued against them (which also passed unanimously, it should be noted).

Surely, some Washington State Representatives must have been notified of this? Yes, they were. But when the NRA raised its voice, too many of our lawmakers got cold feet. Rather than standing up to and correcting the NRA, they stalled the bill to avoid the bullying of the long-standing firearms lobbyist organization.

All of this comes back to the sexual assault survivors, who we have let down. The NRA has ensured that, for now, they must still carry the burden of renewing the protection order every two years.

Legal Voice and their allies have publicly decried the Legislature’s failure to pass this bipartisan legislation, and have affirmed their commitment to see the bill through in the 2017 session. But what can we do about it? Email or call your Representatives, and let them know that you won’t stand for this kind of interference, and that when this bill comes around again in the next legislative session, you expect them to support it. This sounds like a small thing—sending an email or making a two-minute call—but it’s actually incredibly important. If many of us show our support, and give them a strong reason to vote in favor, we can help give them the courage to stand up to the NRA and support sexual assault survivors.

Martha Burwell is a gender equity consultant, researcher, and writer based in Seattle. You can see her explorations into intersectional feminist topics on her blog EqualiSea: The pulse on gender equity in Seattle and beyond, or say hello on twitter @EqualiSea.

Photo courtesy of Patricia Feaster | Licensed under CC by 2.0