Politics | NPR

The Senate gun bill would close the 'boyfriend loophole.' Here's what that means

Federal law prevents some convicted domestic abusers from owning a gun, depending on their relationship to the victim. The new gun safety bill would expand that definition to include dating partners.

Listen

The U.S. Capitol Dome is pictured in Washington on Tuesday, the day Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan agreement on a gun safety bill.
The U.S. Capitol Dome is pictured in Washington on Tuesday, the day Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan agreement on a gun safety bill. Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images
Updated June 23, 2022 at 11:47 AM ET

Congress soon may pass its most significant gun legislation in three decades. Senators are working to fast-track a bipartisan gun safety bill that negotiators recently finalized, spurred by mass shootings last month in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

The Senate, which advanced the bill in a 64-34 vote on Tuesday, will hold a procedural vote on Thursday to end debate and prevent a filibuster from blocking the bill.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is expected to clear that vote and head for final passage in the Senate by the weekend, just ahead of lawmakers' July recess. It would then go to the House for expected passage, at which point President Biden — who has urged Congress to move without delay — has said he would sign it.

The bill's measures are narrowly focused, with lawmakers aiming to craft legislation that would earn a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the evenly-divided Senate. That means it falls short of many of the changes that Democrats long have been pushed for, including universal background checks and a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles.

Still, Democrats and gun safety advocates are hailing the legislation as an important and incremental step in the right direction. Among other provisions, it would expand background checks for prospective gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21, incentivize states to create red-flag laws, and give states more funding for school safety and mental health resources.

It also would close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" in a law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun. That law currently only applies to people who are married to, living with or have a child with the victim.

April Zeoli, a professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University, says those limited categories don't reflect the fact that people spend a lot more time dating now than they did in the past, with women marrying on average in their late 20s and men in their early 30s.

"Because we spend all this time dating, it doesn't mean that violence doesn't happen," Zeoli told Morning Edition's A Martínez. "It still happens, but the dating partners right now aren't covered by the federal restriction."

More than a thousand women are killed by intimate partners every year in the United States, based on FBI and CDC data, and about half of the intimate partner homicides in the U.S. are perpetrated by an unmarried partner, a 2018 study found.

The bill would close the loophole, but add a caveat

Democrats long have tried to broaden the definition of who qualifies for the ban. Their most recent attempt, an effort to add it to the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that passed in March, was unsuccessful.

While that effort was on going, some states addressed the boyfriend loophole within their jurisdictions.

Thirty-one states have policies prohibiting convicted domestic abusers from having guns, according to a tracker from Everytown for Gun Safety. Of those, 19 go beyond the federal prohibition to cover abusive dating partners.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is poised to finally make that change on the federal level. It adds and defines the term dating relationship as "a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature," with considerations for the length and nature of the relationship as well as the frequency and type of interactions between the individuals involved.

The bill includes a related provision, allowing people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to have their gun rights restored if their record stays clean for five years. There are some exceptions for victims' spouses, parents, guardians or cohabitants.

Zeoli says she'd like to know more about the reasoning behind that provision, as it doesn't appear to be informed by any research.

"If we're talking about dating partners versus spouses, both of them can do the same types of violence, both of them can be the same level of dangerous, get the same conviction and get the same firearm restriction," she said. "But the spouses will have this lifetime firearm restriction, and the dating partners will have this five-year restriction, and I don't know the logic behind that disparity."

Baseless fears of deception and retaliation

Why hasn't the federal law evolved with the times or research data? Zeoli offers one explanation:

"I think that there has always been a fear that women will make things up, that women will try to take revenge on their dating partners through lying about abuse and trying to get these firearm restrictions on them," she says. "And that fear is unfounded. In fact ... a large proportion of people who experience abuse never report it to the courts or law enforcement."

As a researcher, she says it's been difficult to watch as measures that data suggest could save lives — such as closing the boyfriend loophole — haven't been implemented. Zeoli says the bipartisan bill, even with its limited provisions, is a step in the right direction.

"I am encouraged by the fact that we are seeing movement at the federal level on gun safety legislation, when we haven't seen it for literally decades," Zeoli says.

The audio for this interview was produced by Jeevika Verma and Ben Abrams, and edited by Raquel Maria Dillon.


If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. That can include a local shelter, or call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Senate is fast-tracking a bipartisan package that would pass a narrow set of measures aimed at stemming gun violence. One of the things the bill would do is close something called the boyfriend loophole. It's an exception in the current federal law that bars domestic abusers from having firearms, but the law only applies to people who are married, living together, or have a child together. Our co-host, A Martinez, talked to April Zeoli, a professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University, about what the boyfriend loophole really means.

APRIL ZEOLI: So if you are dating someone and you haven't lived together, you don't have a child with them, the firearm restrictions that would otherwise be in place don't apply to that dating partner, even though they could be just as violent as someone you married.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: And even though you may be in a relationship, that still wouldn't apply unless there's the history there, as you mentioned - marriage, living with someone, or having a child.

ZEOLI: Yeah. It doesn't take into account the reality of the situation right now, which is that we spend a lot more time dating than we used to. Average age at marriage is in the late 20s for women and the early 30s for men. And because we spend all this time dating, it doesn't mean that violence doesn't happen. It still happens, but the dating partners right now aren't covered by the federal restriction.

MARTINEZ: And has this definition - intimate partner, romantic partner, dating relationship - has that been a sticking point with this over the years?

ZEOLI: It has. These federal laws came into being in the mid 1990s, and various incarnations of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization bills have included closing the boyfriend loophole, but it has ended up being dropped because it is such a sticking point.

MARTINEZ: Why do you think it's taken this long to kind of get with the times? You know, it's 2022. And relationships, much like a lot of other things, have evolved, and we need to keep up with what they mean and how the law applies.

ZEOLI: I think that there has always been a fear that women will make things up - that women will try to take revenge on their, you know, dating partners through lying about abuse and trying to get these firearm restrictions on them. And that fear is unfounded. In fact, most people who experience abuse - or I should say a large proportion of people who experience abuse never report it to the courts or law enforcement.

MARTINEZ: So closing it - what kind of a difference would that make?

ZEOLI: It would place many more people who are a danger to their intimate partners and their families under a firearm restriction so they would not be able to purchase or possess a firearm if they are convicted of domestic violence against that person.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Now, you know, people convicted who get their gun rights taken away can get them back if they keep their record clean for five years. How much sense does that make here?

ZEOLI: I would be interested to know what the logic behind that is because, again, if we're talking about dating partners versus spouses, both of them can do the same types of violence. Both of them can be the same level of dangerous, get the same conviction and get the same firearm restriction, but the spouses will have this lifetime firearm restriction, and the dating partners will have this five-year firearm restriction. And I don't know the logic behind that disparity. Certainly, it isn't informed by research, but there may be some other logic I am unaware of.

MARTINEZ: For some, it'd be easy to say, OK, well, it's absolutely not enough. But is it, at this point, better than nothing, considering the world we live in right now?

ZEOLI: The federal legislation?

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

ZEOLI: Absolutely. The bill that the Senate has put out is absolutely a step in the right direction. It would, importantly, close this boyfriend loophole for domestic violence misdemeanor convictions. It would provide money to states for implementation of extremist protection order or red flag laws, and it does many other things besides. I am encouraged by the fact that we are seeing movement at the federal level on gun safety legislation when we haven't seen it for literally decades.

Positive change can be made. It doesn't have to be made, but at least we're not going backwards or staying still. The difficulty as a researcher is seeing things that, you know, research really does suggest save lives - seeing those things not being implemented, like closing the boyfriend loophole. But we live in the world we live in, and people in states will make those decisions based on whatever reasons they feel are the most valid.

MARTINEZ: That's April Zeoli, professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University. Professor, thanks.

ZEOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.