In the past year, Republicans have gone wild when it comes to rape. They blocked the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act because it would have given tribal courts broader jurisdiction over rape on Native American lands. They told women they can't get pregnant from rape and that babies that result from rape are God's will. Though the GOP did pay a political price for some of this (see: Rep. Todd Akin), as the 112th Congress was hurriedly finishing up its business in the past few days, House Republicans yet again played politics with rape and sabotaged a bipartisan bill that would have made it easier to track down rapists.
The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act, also known as the SAFER Act of 2012, was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the Senate in May, and by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) in the House in December. It would have reallocated $117 million to help make a dent in the nationwide backlog of untested "rape kits," which contain forensic evidence collected after sexual assaults that can help identify perpetrators. There are some 400,000 untested kits sitting in labs around the country. As long as this DNA evidence goes unanalyzed, it's easier for rapists to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Lately, it has been looking more and more likely that America is about to lurch over the fiscal cliff, or fiscal staircase, or fiscal curb, or whatever, due to GOP obstructionism. On Friday, there was a tad more hope on the Hill as congressional leaders met with President Obama to try and come up with some sort of last-minute deal to at least partially avert the $400 billion in across-the-board tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts set to go into effect January 1. To provide a kick in the pants to their fellow members of Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) rallied with dozens of working class folks outside the Capitol Friday to push for a stop-gap measure that would spare the middle class and working poor from tax hikes and expiring unemployment benefits.
Since Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and 7 adults in Newtown a week ago, gun control is on the national mind more than any time since probably 1994. Several pro-gun lawmakers and public figures have had a change of heart in recent days. And on Wednesday, Obama came out in support of renewing a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, and requiring background checks on all gun sales. That is bad news for gun rights groups all over the country. But it sure helps them raise money.
The tragedy in Newtown has revived a national debate about gun control, focusing attention on the laws (and loopholes) governing gun ownership in America, and raising a host of questions about how to prevent future Newtowns (and Auroras and Columbines and Virginia Techs). Chief among them is how to keep weapons out of the hands of mentally ill people. Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, whose mother was reportedly seeking to have her son committed to a mental institution, carried out the shootings with weapons that had been legally purchased by his mom, but across the country it's frighteningly easy for people with serious psychiatric problems to purchase weapons.
It's technically against federal law to sell guns to people with a severe mental illness, but in practice the background check system is so flawed it rarely filters out those with disqualifying psychiatric problems. There are a number of roadblocks to enforcing the law. One of them is that only gun sales by federally licensed arms dealers require background checks. That means a huge chunk—40 percent—of private gun sales don't require buyers to be vetted. (This is the so-called "gun show" loophole, though currently six states have laws that close it.) The law also defines disqualifying mental illness narrowly. It only forbids gun sales to people who have been determined by a court to be seriously mentally ill, or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. This means that the system often overlooks dangerous and disturbed people who don't have a paper trail.