How a law with two missing words is letting domestic abusers buy guns


Among the most baffling failures in gun policy—and there are many—is the fact that some victims of domestic violence don’t get the same protections from their abusers as others. Under current law, people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence are only banned from owning guns if they are married to, have children with, or live with their victims. (That’s if they’re subjected to a background check, which is a big “if.”)

There are only 10 states that have laws closing the so-called boyfriend loophole. Everywhere else in the country, a man who assaults his girlfriend and is convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence can buy and own as many guns as he’d like.

A gun is no less deadly in abusive dating relationships than it is in abusive married relationships, but in a majority of states the law pretends otherwise. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008 48.6% of intimate partner homicides were committed by a dating partner. Of those victims, 70% were women.

This glaring gap in policy was raised last week by Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, who rolled out a gun policy platform that included closing the “boyfriend loophole” as well as other things like universal background checks and restrictions on concealed carry.

From the O’Malley fact sheet:

O’Malley supports the proposed federal legislation that would close this loophole, providing critical protections for women who are targets of dating violence. O’Malley also supports provisions that prohibit anyone convicted of stalking from owning a gun.

The legislation O’Malley is talking about has bipartisan support in Congress, but, like so many other gun reform measures, the bills haven’t advanced an inch since being introduced.

“My ex-boyfriend—despite being subject to a domestic abuse restraining order—got his hands on a gun and pulled the trigger.”

The House version of the bill—the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act—was introduced in July by Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell and Illinois Republican Robert Dold. It still hasn’t received a hearing or a vote.

In a statement to Fusion, Dingell emphasized the bipartisan nature of the bill: “We disagree on a lot of things in Washington, but we all agree that no woman and no child should ever live in fear because of domestic violence. The bipartisan Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act makes commonsense updates to our laws to protect victims of domestic abuse and stalking from gun violence and, ultimately, save lives.”

In the Senate, Democrats introduced the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act of 2013, but the bill never left committee. (The bill has been reintroduced as the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act of 2015.)

Both versions of the legislation would do the same thing: expand the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to protect people in dating relationships by adding the words “dating partners” to the existing provision on domestic violence. This small change—just adding two words—would ban convicted abusers in dating relationships from owning guns, same as their married counterparts. The fix is that simple, which is part of why it’s so absurd that it hasn’t happened yet.

And tragic. Gathering in Washington last year for a hearing on guns and domestic violence, the families of victims spoke about the agony of knowing that a more responsive set of reforms could have saved their loved ones’ lives.

Victims of dating partner violence have also come out to support laws closing these loopholes. Sarah Engle is one of the women who has told her story. In 2014, she testified before the Wisconsin state legislature and wrote an account of how her abusive boyfriend’s ability to get a gun forever changed her life:

My ex-boyfriend—despite being subject to a domestic abuse restraining order—got his hands on a gun and pulled the trigger. He didn’t have a gun permit, didn’t go through a background check and didn’t have gun safety training of any kind.
He broke into my mother’s house, where I was living at the time, shot her and waited for me to get home from work. When I walked through the door, there was a gun pointed in my face. He raped me at gunpoint, even firing off a shot to prove the gun worked. When I jumped out of bed, he shot me in the face. I am so fortunate that I survived that night—but not without permanent physical and emotional trauma.

The National Rifle Association opposes universal background checks and closing the loophole in the Brady Act. In a comment to Fusion on the Senate bill, National Rifle Association spokesperson Catherine Mortensen said: “This gun control bill exploits emotionally compelling issues such as domestic violence and stalking in an attempt to keep as many people as possible from exercising their Second Amendment rights.”

But closing the boyfriend loophole has received comparatively little opposition from the lobby at the state level, where it has mostly gone silent on the issue. And a majority of Republican voters—59% to be exact—support additional protections for victims of domestic violence in dating relationship, according to a 2014 poll from the Huffington Post and YouGov. Overall, 82% of Americans support keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers in dating relationships, according to data from Public Policy Polling.

So where do the other candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, stand on closing the loophole? It’s hard to say, since, with the exception of O’Malley, none of the major contenders have offered a detailed platform on guns.

Hillary Clinton, who has endorsed universal background checks and pledged in August to push for reform after a Virginia journalist and cameraman were killed on-air, has talked about guns and intimate partner violence in the past but has so far only offered a few general policy bullet points on website. And Bernie Sanders, who has come under fire from progressives and gun reform advocates for his previous opposition to tighter gun restrictions, doesn’t offer any information about gun policy on his campaign site. Neither campaign has returned Fusion’s request for comment on the candidates’ positions on the boyfriend loophole.

In 2008 48.6% of intimate partner homicides were committed by a dating partner. Of those victims, 70% were women. — Bureau of Justice Statistics

Of the major Republican candidates currently vying for the nomination, not a single one supports federal universal background checks. Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have less well-defined policy positions on guns, but have each expressed skepticism of proposed gun safety measures and offered strong support for the Second Amendment. Requests for comment from Donald Trump (whose campaign released a gun policy platform last week), Carson, Fiorina, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz went unanswered.

Bush’s campaign, in response to a question from Fusion about his positions on universal background checks and closing the boyfriend loophole in the Brady Act, said the former governor of Florida “believes we need to fix the system in place before expanding it in ways that could infringe constitutionally protected rights” and “improve the country’s broken mental health service so that people get the help they need before resorting to violence.” The statement continued: “Jeb rejects the ‘Washington Knows Best’ mentality and believes that States have every incentive to enact additional, constitutionally sound laws when necessary to protect their citizens.”

The lack of traction on the domestic abuse loophole is hard to understand given what we know about guns and violence against women. According to a multi-state study published in the Journal of Public Health, the involvement of a gun in a domestic violence incident increases the likelihood of a homicide by 500 percent. According to research from the Harvard School of Public Health, women in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other wealthy nations.

The correlation is clear, as Dr. Deborah Azrael, the associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center and a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, told me earlier this year: “What we know is that if a woman is going to be killed by a firearm, she’s most likely to be killed by a current or former intimate partner. What we know is where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true.”

But what’s inconvertibly true hasn’t moved Congress to act. There is overwhelming public consensus on basic gun safety reforms—we’re talking percentages in the high 80s and 90s, including among gun owners—and building momentum at the state-level, but measures like universal background checks have repeatedly stalled in Congress.

You might think something so deadly—the United States leads the world in mass shootings and gun deaths—would merit more attention, but we really don’t talk enough about guns. And that’s part of the reason our laws are doing such a terrible job of reducing violence.

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