Dingell takes on the NRA: ‘I was sure I was going to die that night’

Rep. Debbie Dingell
Rep. Debbie Dingell advocating for the Violence Against Women Act | Robin Bravender

WASHINGTON — For Debbie Dingell, keeping guns away from domestic violence perpetrators is personal.

“This is something that I care very, very deeply about, because I lived in that household,” U.S. Rep. Dingell (D-Dearborn) told reporters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Rep. Debbie Dingell at the University of Michigan
Rep. Debbie Dingell

Dingell is among the lawmakers leading the charge for the House to pass legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, which is expected to win approval in the chamber later this week. The 1994 law funds services like rape crisis centers, hotlines and legal aid for domestic violence survivors.

This time around, Dingell and others are hoping to expand the law by adding a provision to prevent people who have been convicted of abusing their partners from buying or owning guns. That’s put her at odds with the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby that’s dubbed the measure a “poison pill” a characterization that infuriates the congresswoman.

“Don’t call something a poison pill because we are trying to keep someone who’s been convicted of [domestic violence from] having a gun,” she said. “We’re not trying to take the guns away.”

Dingell has spoken publicly about hiding in a closet from her father, who suffered from mental illness.

“I know what it’s like to live in a household with someone that has issues that can snap at a minute’s notice, and suddenly the gun is pointed at your mother or pointed at you. And as a child, you’re trying to grab a gun from someone and keep them from killing each other,” she said Wednesday.

“I was sure I was going to die that night.”

Dingell dismisses the common counterargument that domestic violence victims can buy their own guns.

“My mother went out and bought a gun, and then all of us were scared to death about her gun and my father’s gun,” she said previously on the House floor. “We had two guns to worry about. No child, no woman, no man should ever have to go through that.”

The NRA has portrayed the expanded restrictions on gun ownership as “too broad and ripe for abuse,” The New York Times reported.

‘Does this hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?’

A gun show
Potential buyers try out guns which are displayed on an exhibitor’s table during the Nation’s Gun Show on Nov. 18, 2016 at Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. | Alex Wong, Getty Images

Dingell spoke on Wednesday along with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 presidential contender who’s pushing similar legislation in the Senate that would bar people who have been convicted of stalking or abusing dating partners from owning guns.

“We both believe and respect the Second Amendment,” Dingell said.  

Klobuchar noted that both Michigan and Minnesota “enjoy strong traditions of hunting and fishing.”

To judge whether it hurts gun owners, Klobuchar said, “I’ve said to myself, does this hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?” She said that a proposal “that focuses on domestic abusers and those convicted of stalking does not hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand. It is simply designed to save lives.”

Dingell noted in an interview with the Michigan Advance this week that her husband, the late Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), was an NRA board member.

He was “was a responsible gun owner,” Dingell said. “My stepson shoots every weekend.”

Her effort, she said, is “not taking a gun away from someone that’s innocent … it’s closing a loophole.”

Any gun restrictions are certain to face an uphill battle in the GOP-led Senate, but Democratic proponents say they’re hopeful.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announcing her 2020 presidential campaign. | Lorie Shaull

Klobuchar said she’ll be lobbying GOP senators who have quietly expressed support for similar efforts in past years.

“They didn’t want to have their name on the bill, but they would have voted for it,” she said. “That’s a group I’m focusing on.”

And because those provisions are expected to be included in the version likely to pass the House this week, “It’s not like anyone has to sponsor a separate bill,” Klobuchar said. “They have an argument that they don’t want to vote against the entire domestic violence bill.”

Klobuchar said lawmakers will have to “show whose side they’re on.”

“Are they going to be on the side of the gun lobby, or are they going to be on the side of protecting women’s lives?”

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the DC Bureau Chief for the Newsroom, a consortium of 10 nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.

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