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How Closing the 'Boyfriend Loophole' in Gun Laws Could Save Lives

Ninety-three percent of women killed by men in 2015 were murdered by someone they knew, and the most common weapon was a gun. But advocates say the ban that prevents convicted domestic violence abusers from purchasing guns doesn't go far enough.

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Courtney Weaver is a survivor of domestic violence. In 2010, her boyfriend shot her in the face and arm when she threatened to leave; he'd just thrown her cat against the wall of her apartment.

"I went into the living room to find my phone and saw a gaping hole in my forearm," she wrote in an essay for Quartz. "Then I saw the trail of blood reaching from the kitchen to the couch. When I screamed for help, along with my cries, blood, teeth, and tissue came out of my mouth."

According to recent research from the Violence Policy Center, 93 percent of women killed by men in 2015 were murdered by someone they knew, and the most common weapon was a gun. Another study on nonfatal gun use in intimate partner violence found that nearly one million women in the US have been shot or shot at by a romantic partner. About 4.5 million also reported they have had a intimate partner threaten them with a gun.

Since 26 people lost their lives in a mass shooting in a Texas church on Sunday, media outlets have, once again, taken to analyzing the link between domestic violence and gun violence, thus exposing the various loopholes that allow abusers to purchase and possess firearms. Devin Kelley, the alleged shooter in Sunday's shooting, had been convicted of beating his wife and breaking his infant stepson's skull, but was able to purchase his military-style AR-15 anyway. According to the Air Force, an officer neglected to enter Kelley's domestic violence reports into its national database, which would have prevented him from purchasing guns in the future.

Advocates say domestic violence can all too easily turn into domestic homicide, or intimate partner homicide. That's why in the 90s, Congress passed the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, also known as the Lautenberg Amendment, which prevents a person who has been convicted of crimes of domestic violence from purchasing or possessing a firearm. But, April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, tells Broadly, the ban only applies to people who have or had a marital relationship, people who live or used to live together, and people who have children together.

Read more: This State Will Alert Domestic Violence Victims if Their Abuser Tries to Buy a Gun

The gap in law is often referred to as "the boyfriend loophole."

"Under the federal law," Zeoli explains, "I could be the victim of domestic violence and go for a domestic violence restraining order and get one. And if it were my husband that I was getting the restraining order against, he would have a firearm restriction on him. Now, I could have the exact same circumstances of domestic violence and go to get a domestic violence restraining order and get one, but if it is my boyfriend, that I never lived with, married, or had a child with, he would not have a firearm restriction on him."

"This is important," Zeoli continues, "because recently, it looks like just under half of intimate partner homicides are committed by dating partners. So by not putting this firearm restriction on dating partners, we are missing a population that we know commits domestic violence and we know commits fatal domestic violence." According to data from the Department of Justice on homicide trends between 1980-2008, the proportion of homicides committed by a boyfriend or girlfriend increased to about 48.6 percent.

In July, Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingall reintroduced a bill called the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act. First unveiled in 2015, the legislation, if passed, would clarify existing federal law and end the boyfriend loophole by ensuring abusive dating partners and convicted stalkers cannot buy or own firearms. It currently sits in a House Judiciary subcommittee.

"This isn't a 'nothing works, we don't know what to do' situation."

However, a problem with this legislation is that people who are subject to domestic abuse protective orders are rarely forced to give up the weapons they already have. According to the Giffords Law Center, only 27 states have laws that require abusers to surrender their guns and/or ammunition when someone takes out a restraining order against them.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told Bustle that they're working to pass new state laws that keep guns out of the hands of abusers: "Right now in about half the states, if you're a domestic abuser you can't buy more guns, but no one is taking away the ones that you have, so we're also putting teeth in the laws that allow police to insist that convicted abusers relinquish the guns they already own."

Nonetheless, closing the boyfriend loophole is an important step to helping to keep safe domestic violence survivors who haven't lived with or have children with their abusers. "Research suggests that these domestic violence firearm restrictions, when they are in place at the state level, are associated with a reduction in intimate partner homicides," Zeoli says. "And multiple studies have found that—four studies have found that. So it looks like this domestic violence restraining order firearm restriction may save lives. If we apply it to more people, then again, these are groups that we know commit intimate partner homicide, then we might save more lives."

She adds: "This is a policy that looks like it works, and that is important. This isn't a 'nothing works, we don't know what to do' situation."