The U.S. Congress has approved a dual gun safety bill, representing the first federal gun safety legislation passed in a generation.
The legislation, which will now be signed by President Joe Biden, is limited in scope. But among its provisions is the closure of the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows some people with a record of domestic violence to continue buying firearms.
April Zeoli, at Michigan State University, investigates the link between intimate partner violence, murder and gun laws. She explains what the change means – and why it would save lives.
What is the boyfriend loophole?
Under current federal law, intimate partner relationships are defined only as those in which two people are married or were married, as a couple living together or living together, or having a child together. People who have been in a dating relationship are largely excluded from this definition.
Consequently, date mates are exempt from federal laws prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence crimes, or those under domestic violence restraining orders, from buying or possessing a firearm. This is what is referred to as the “boyfriend loophole”.
In other words, if you have two domestic abusers who have both committed the same serious physical violence against their partners, but one of them is married to their intimate partner while the other is not, then only the domestic abuser is married. may be prohibited from having a gun.
What does the data tell us about domestic violence and weapons?
Intimate couple murders have been increasing since about 2015, and this increase is almost entirely due to intimate couple murders committed with guns. Guns are indeed the most common weapon used in intimate partner murder. In contrast, the levels of murder in intimate measure without firearms remained about the same over that period.
Research suggests that when a violent male partner has access to a gun, the risk of murder for the female partner increases fivefold. We also know that guns are used to coerce, intimidate and threaten intimate partners, and that gun-related intimate partner violence can result in more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than intimate partner violence that does not involve guns. With a nationally representative survey indicating that 3.4% of victims of domestic violence have experienced non-lethal firearm use by their addicts – combined with the large number of murders of intimate partners committed with guns – this poses a major threat to public health.
Why are people now talking about the ‘boyfriend loophole’?
The conversation about extending domestic violence firearms restrictions to dating partners arises every few years.
This time, Congress has actually passed new gun safety legislation that will close the loophole, or at least narrow it. The wording of the proposed legislation extends the ban to those who “have or have had an ongoing relationship of a romantic or intimate nature.”
There are a few issues to note here. First, the motivation to enforce new gun safety legislation came from recent mass shooting events and the hope of preventing future mass shooting incidents. We know that many mass shootings often involve the death of intimate partners or family members, and that some of the shooters have criminal histories involving domestic violence before committing the mass shooting.
But mass shootings make up only a small percentage of shooting incidents in the United States. Intimate couple murders occur more frequently.
My research shows that when states extend firearm restrictions placed on individuals under domestic violence restraining orders to cover appointments, there is a concomitant reduction in intimate partner murder.
However, the legislation made by Congress does not do exactly that. The law will only close the loophole for those convicted of crimes of domestic violence. It does not cover restraining order laws.
What is the current situation at state level?
Some states, such as Minnesota and West Virginia, have already extended restrictions on misconduct from domestic violence to dating partners. Others, including Tennessee, did not. Less than half of states have extended the violation of domestic violence firearms restriction to cover appointments.
This has created a situation where security against gun violence by a violent dating partner depends on the state in which you live. Federal legislation will help create a more consistent picture across the country when it comes to dating partners who commit violence.
What effect will the closure of the ‘boyfriend loophole’ have on a national level?
My research suggests that the federal firearms restriction for individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes is associated with reduction in intimate partner murder committed with firearms.
As such, one might suspect that restricting access to guns for a greater number of dangerous intimate partners would further reduce firearm killings within violent relationships. By the same token, closing the boyfriend loophole when it comes to banning gun ownership for individuals under domestic violence restraining orders is also likely to save lives.