A bipartisan group of senators this week finally reached an agreement on gun control legislation, releasing the text of a bill that could become law as early as next week.
“Today, we finalised bipartisan, commonsense legislation to protect America’s children, keep our schools safe, and reduce the threat of violence across our country,” several senators said in a joint statement. “Our legislation will save lives and will not infringe on any law-abiding American’s Second Amendment rights. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense legislation into law.”
During negotiations over the text of the bill, one of the stumbling blocks was the “boyfriend loophole”. As it is now, federal law prevents a person from purchasing firearms if they have been convicted of misdemeanour domestic violence, provided that person was married to, lived with, or had a child with a victim (state law varies). But if a person is just in a romantic or intimate relationship with the victim, there is no ban on firearm purchases.
Research by the Rand Corporation, a policy think tank, has shown that intimate partner violence that involves a firearm is a full 12 times likelier to result in death than that which does not. And it isn’t only the victim in the relationship who is impacted: research has also shown that there are often additional lives taken in intimate partner homicides. What’s more, from 2009 to 2016, 54 per cent of mass homicides – that is, when four or more people are killed in a single incident – started with or included domestic or family violence.
The senators who wrote the text negotiated over how broad or narrow the range and reach of the provision should be. What, for example, constitutes a “boyfriend”? The issue was considered one of the trickiest, and most vital, in the debate.
“Decades of research finds that access to a firearm increases the likelihood that domestic violence will turn into domestic homicide,” Sierra Smucker, a policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, said. “But current federal law ignores the risk of gun violence to many victims of abuse, including dating partners who haven’t lived with or had children with the abuser. Abuse happens regardless of a person’s legal relationship to the abuser, so the omission of dating partners is illogical given the intent of the original policy.”
In the end, the senators said they had reached an agreement. “We are closing the boyfriend loophole,” said Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and a leading advocate for gun control in the Senate. “This provision alone is going to save the lives of so many women who unfortunately die at the hands of a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend who hunts them down with a firearm.”
But experts say that the way the bill is actually written won’t do that, exactly.
“It was disappointing,” Susan Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “They could have closed the loophole and instead they created new ones.”
As the text was written, the new legislation would define a “dating relationship” based on its consideration of length, nature and the “frequency and type” of interaction between the abuser and victim. “A casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternisation in a business or social context,” would not count as a dating relationship. Further, a person won’t be considered to have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanour under this law if that conviction has been expunged or set aside.
Notably, if a person is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanour against someone with whom they are in a “dating relationship”, but only has one such conviction, that person could then purchase a firearm after five years. A person who was or is married to, lived with, or has a child with the victim would not be eligible for restoration of the right to buy a gun – which is to say that this legislation creates a five-year period in which the boyfriend loophole is closed, and then it opens again. “The protection comes with an expiration date,” said Sorenson.
Smucker said: “While it isn’t ideal, the possibility of reinstating a person’s gun rights after five years still allows the policy to do what ‘red flag’ laws also do: remove firearms at a time of intense conflict that is most likely to result in gun violence.” Still, she added, “survivors of domestic violence will have limited relief if their abuser can regain access to firearms at some point in the future. Even after successfully leaving an abusive partner, survivors often live in fear of their abuser’s return, whether that is five or 50 years later.”
Does the fact that the boyfriend loophole is now more closed than it was make it less likely that it will eventually be closed for good? “It does run that risk,” Sorenson said. “Men’s gun rights are prioritised over women’s safety. Consistently.” This legislation would be progress, she added, but it still puts the right to have a gun over the right to safety. “It reifies problems that already existed,” she said. “It doesn’t address them head-on.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday (23 June), the Supreme Court struck down a New York law that required “proper cause” for carrying a concealed weapon, making it still easier to have and carry around an instrument designed to hurt and kill. Even the “boyfriend loophole” compromise could face a similar challenge at some point.