What Is The ‘Boyfriend Loophole?’

A new bipartisan agreement on gun control is lacking in critical areas, but does promise a long overdue domestic violence provision.

What Is The ‘Boyfriend Loophole?’
Photo:Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

On Sunday, in the wake of countless concurrent shootings, 20 senators—10 from each party—unveiled a new bipartisan agreement on forthcoming gun safety legislation. Though the package lacks any of the provisions that would address the actual gun problem in this country—namely, an assault weapons ban, universal background checks or raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm—it does include one small but significant victory for gun control and domestic violence advocates alike.

The so-called “boyfriend loophole” is the gap in federal and some state gun laws that allows domestic abusers who aren’t married to their victims continued access to guns. It’s already federal law that anyone convicted of domestic abuse, or who has a personal protective order issued against them, can’t buy or possess a gun—but that law only applies to spouses, not boyfriends or dating partners. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), approximately half of intimate partner homicides are committed by dating partners, and firearms are used more than any other weapon.

This “loophole” has been debated for decades. In 1994, when the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed as part of the infamous crime bill—which many have called a catalyst for creating the mass incarceration crisis—safety provisions for dating partners were left out of the legislation. VAWA has been reauthorized every five years—with some delays—since its establishment and yet, no such provisions to close the loophole have passed. Most recent attempts—all of which were introduced and supported by Democrats—include the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act of 2021 (S.527)/Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act (H.R.1494); Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act (H.R.1923/S.763); Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act of 2021 (H.R.1906); Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 (H.R.1620).

There’s overwhelming evidence that the majority of mass shooters have a track record of gendered violence. But the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the host of Republicans on which it has a stranglehold and long made their support of VAWA dependent on keeping in the boyfriend loophole. In 2021, Republican arguments that a lifelong ban on individuals convicted of misdemeanor charges of stalking or domestic abuse on purchasing firearms was too harsh stalled the reauthorization. Notably, the NRA has likened the provision to just another attempt to advance harsher gun control from Democrats. The NCADV reports that 33 states—including Texas, California, Michigan, among others—have “taken steps” to eliminate the loophole, yet laws on federal level would have greater impact.

Other important stipulations included in the latest agreement to alleviate the uniquely American issue of mass shootings are: “red flag laws,” greater investment in mental health and telehealth, school security resources, an enhanced review process for purchasers under 21, and the establishment of an definition for federally lawful firearm dealers. John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told the New York Times that should the framework be successfully enacted into law, “it will be the most significant piece of gun safety legislation to make it through Congress in 26 long and deadly years.”

Meanwhile, aides bleakly told CNN that before the July recess in just two weeks, Democrats will not only have to draft the bill but try to “keep Republicans on board.” God forbid their job might prevent them from taking a summer vacation.

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