This Obscure Loophole Lets Domestic Abusers Buy Guns & How It Happens Is Infuriating

by Morgan Brinlee
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, the debate over gun control has once again come to dominate national headlines and social media networks. As student activists continue to bring the issue of school shootings into the spotlight, gun control advocates are hoping to broaden the conversation to additional reform measures that could save a number of lives each year, including doubling down on details like the dangerous "boyfriend loophole." But what is the "boyfriend loophole?" While you might not have heard of it, it's a little-known legal loophole that can give physically abusive ex-boyfriends and convicted stalkers access to guns.

Most people agree that the aim of federal background checks is to prevent dangerous people from being able to buy a firearm. Under the Lautenberg Amendment, a person convicted of certain domestic violence crimes is prohibited from buying or owning a gun. However, there's a major loophole in the law that, according to gun control advocates, is putting domestic abuse survivors at serious risk.

That loophole is known as the "boyfriend loophole." It refers to the fact that the Lautenberg Amendment only keeps guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers who are currently — or were at one time — married to their victim, live with their victim, have a child with their victim, or are a parent or guardian of their victim. That means stalkers and current or former boyfriends or dating partners can still buy and own a gun, even if they've been convicted of a domestic violence crime.

While the "boyfriend loophole" can affect both genders, it's particularly troubling for women. An overwhelming 93 percent of the women murdered by men in 2015 were killed by a man they knew, according to a recent study conducted by the Violence Policy Center.

The most common weapon used? A gun.

While the Lautenberg Amendment is a good first step, research has shown spouses aren't the only ones behind the intimate homicides committed against women. A 2014 study on from the gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety found 48.6 percent of the intimate homicides committed against women were committed by a dating partner compared to the 46.7 percent committed by a spouse.

Moreover, research shows guns are not only prominent components in the homicide of women at the hand of an intimate partner but that they also factor heavily into incidents of nonfatal abuse and violence. A study published in 2016, for example, found "about 4.5 million [women] have had an intimate partner threaten them with a gun and nearly 1 million have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner."

According to Rep. Debbie Dingell, the boyfriend loophole doesn't just put survivors of domestic violence at risk, it puts everyone at risk. "Many mass shooters abuse their partners," Dingell wrote in a recent op-ed for Teen Vogue. "Everytown’s analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 shows that 54 percent of mass shootings were related to domestic or family violence." Dingell is hoping to close the boyfriend loophole at the federal level with her bill, the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act.

And Dingell isn't the only lawmaker pushing to draw the boyfriend loophole to a close. State legislators in Oregon passed a law last week barring anyone convicted of a misdemeanor stalking crime or who have been convicted of a domestic violence crime against someone they are not married to from buying or owning firearms or ammunition.

Dingell argues it's time to get serious about implementing gun control reforms that will protect women and domestic abuse survivors. "With this loophole on the books, it's no wonder that women in America are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries," she wrote.