Biden Signs Historic Gun Control Legislation Into Law—Despite Republican Insistence on Continuing Exemptions for Some Abusers

Update Monday, June 27, at 7:35 a.m. PT: On Saturday, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill on gun safety—the first national legislation on gun control in two decades. The law provides $750 million for state-level crisis intervention programs and closes the “boyfriend loophole,” while still allowing those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes to restore their gun rights after five years if they haven’t committed other crimes.

“While this bill doesn’t do everything I want, it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives,” Biden said. “Today, we say more than ‘enough.’ We say more than enough. This time, when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential.”

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Gun safety advocates participate in the ‘March For Our Lives’ rally in downtown Orlando, Fla., on June 11, 2022 . Similar marches were held across the U.S. in the wake of the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 14 which took 10 lives, and another on May 24 in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed. (Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators working on landmark bipartisan gun legislation reached a compromise on the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” blocking dating partners convicted of a misdemeanor from buying guns—but allowing them to regain the right to buy a gun after five years provided that they were first-time offenders and not found guilty of any other violent misdemeanor or offense.

“While this is not the ideal or perfect bill, this provision is an important first step to closing the dating partner loophole,” said Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Many previously unprotected victims will now have some safety from gun violence. We look forward to working with Congress to fully close the dating partner loophole, including extending the federal law to dating abusers subject to protective orders.”

Lead Democrat negotiators Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Krysten Sinema (Ariz.) pushed for a broader prohibition but lead Republican negotiators Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Senator Thom Tillis (N.C.) insisted on narrowing the prohibition.

The provision is part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which would restrict guns from getting in the hands of dangerous people by incentivizing red flag laws, increasing scrutiny for gun buyers under the age of 21 and funding mental health resources in schools and communities. On Tuesday night, the Senate voted 64-34 in favor of advancing the bill. Fourteen Republicans joined all 50 Democrats to advancing the bill.

Existing laws restrict firearms access for abusers who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and for those who have domestic violence protective orders against them, but only applies to former spouses, current and former cohabitants, or people who have a child in common. Current law excludes dating partners—called the “boyfriend loophole.”

“There have been many attempts to close the boyfriend loophole. It’s a major gap in the law that allows people who’ve been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against dating partners to keep their guns,” says Vagins. “Closing the boyfriend loophole is incredibly important in order to protect survivors of domestic violence who are in fear of their safety.”

The proposed bipartisan bill defines “dating relationship” to be a “relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” determined by the length and nature of the relationship and the frequency and type of interaction between the individuals involved in the relationship. The statute exempts “a casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternization in a business or social context.”

The compromise bill applies to dating abusers with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions but not to those subject to protective orders. Nor does it apply retroactively.

The bill still treats dating partners differently than current or former abusive spouses or cohabitants by giving abusive dating partners the right to regain access to firearms after five years and allowing abusive dating partners subject to protective orders to obtain guns.

The bill also allows convicted stalkers of women with whom they have not had previous intimate relations to obtain guns. One in three women experience stalking at some point in their lives and 42 percent of stalkers are acquaintances of their victims, meaning a previous intimate relationship never existed.

In the U.S., more than one in three women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. An average of three women are killed by a current or former intimate partner every single day. Nearly half of all women killed in the U.S. are murdered by a current or former intimate partner, and about one million women have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner.

“According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 60 percent of intimate partner homicides in 2020 were committed by dating partners,” said Vagins. “It’s a big number and it’s a big loophole that must be closed to protect victims.”

Fully closing the boyfriend loophole would not only protect women in abusive relationships but will also protect others. Over two-thirds of mass shooters are domestic violence perpetrators. Research reveals strong links between domestic violence and mass shootings. 

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act of 2021 with a provision that would keep firearms out of the hands of abusers by closing the boyfriend loophole, but Republicans blocked the provision in the final version passed by the Senate. President Biden signed the Violence Against Women Act of 2022 in March of this year. Whether the provision narrowing the boyfriend loophole will survive in the current legislation remains to be seen.

The bill will now advance to the full Senate for a vote, likely by the end of the week, and then Senate will send the bill to the House.

“Closing the boyfriend loophole is long overdue,” said Vagins. “For every year that goes by without it being closed, more dating partners are open to threat and safety concerns. We hope it will pass Congress and urge folks to let their representatives know how important this is to them.”

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.