Closing the Boyfriend Loophole

In any eight hour period—while you are at work, sleeping, catching up with friends—nearly 10,000 individuals are physically abused by intimate partners. Every minute, an average of 20 individuals—most of them women—suffer physical abuse at the hands of their partners. While most of these acts of violence are not lethal, intimate partner violence can escalate quickly. And when a gun is involved, a dangerous domestic violence situation can easily become deadly.

More than half of all women murdered in the United States are killed by an intimate partner with a gun, and the chance of being murdered by an abusive partner increases five-fold when there is a gun in the home. Even when the weapon is not discharged, abusers often use the mere presence of a gun to coerce, threaten and terrorize their victims, inflicting enormous psychological damage. The intersection of guns and domestic violence poses a serious threat to American women, but most of the time, these tragedies happen behind closed doors.

We don’t hear about the women who are shot and killed in their homes every day. We don’t hear about the disproportionate rates of domestic violence within communities of color. We don’t hear about the women whose boyfriends terrorized them with guns for years before pulling the trigger.

Such violence is typically not considered newsworthy unless it spills into a public place—a school, a workplace, a community gathering. Even when domestic violence does make headlines, policymakers and citizens often lament these tragedies while explicitly or implicitly (and wrongfully) blaming the victim for her own death. “What a shame she didn’t leave her boyfriend,” they say. “They weren’t even married.”

The real shame is that her abuser was allowed to keep his guns.

This scenario occurs far too often. Often, dating partners are not protected from armed abusers unless they are cohabitating, have cohabitated or have a child in common. Twenty-five states do not limit abusive dating partners’ access to guns—either because dating partners do not qualify for those states’ domestic violence protective order firearm prohibitions or because there is no firearm prohibition for abusers at all. In short, while firearms can be removed from an abusive husband in some states, they often cannot be removed from an abusive boyfriend. This gap in legal protection is colloquially known as “the boyfriend loophole.”

Despite its cutesy name, the boyfriend loophole is a grave problem. Nearly half of all intimate partner homicides are perpetrated by dating partners. As more women choose to postpone marriage or decide not to marry at all, this loophole in the law has become increasingly troublesome.

Research shows that policies that prohibit abusers from purchasing or possessing guns are effective at reducing intimate partner homicide. With this in mind, some policymakers have advocated closing the boyfriend loophole and increasing protections for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, the gun lobby and their allies in Congress have routinely opposed both state and federal legislation to extend firearm prohibitions to abusive dating partners. Instead of taking steps to eliminate the boyfriend loophole, they have sided with abusers, actively lobbying for abusive dating partners to keep their guns.

In 2015, Senator Amy Klobuchar proposed a federal bill to prohibit abusive dating partners from purchasing and possessing firearms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) strongly and vocally opposed the bill, saying the law would  “manipulate emotionally compelling issues such as ‘domestic violence.'” That is victim-blaming, plain and simple. The NRA routinely invokes classic dismissive terms—“manipulate” and “emotional”—to preemptively discredit women who report abuse and seek legal protection.

There is nothing manipulative about wanting to protect victims of domestic violence from abusive intimate partners. Women do not report domestic violence because they want a “compelling” story. They come forward because they are seeking safety. And the safety of constituents should be policymakers’ number one priority. Not abusers’ guns. Not the NRA’s money.

Whether our representatives admit it or not, laws reflect the values of a society. Policies are not just a collection of papers or bureaucratic guidelines—they are commitments to citizens. Legislation—or lack thereof—sends a message. In the case of the boyfriend loophole, our legislators are sending a clear message to women: the value of your life is relative to the status of your intimate relationship.

We know the statistics. We’ve heard about the violence. We’ve seen the devastation. And we can do better. We must recognize that gun violence is a women’s issue. We must acknowledge that abuse is abuse—no matter the relationship. And we must demand that our legislators work to close the boyfriend loophole. A woman shouldn’t have to live with an abuser or give birth to his child for her life to be worth more than an inanimate object.



Kelly Roskam, JD serves as General Counsel at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington, DC. She has analyzed, advised on, and drafted numerous pieces of domestic violence and gun violence prevention legislation. Kelly received her Juris Doctor from the Pennsylvania State University – Dickinson School of Law.