The Dangerous Gap In The Violence Against Women Act
Kira’s boyfriend never actually pulled the trigger. But during the four years they dated, he often used his assault-style rifle and a slew of other guns to threaten and intimidate her.
He would load his AR-15 and point it at her while she was working out on the living room floor. He sometimes threatened to kill himself and described how the apartment would look with his brains scattered everywhere. He often used weekends to clean and disassemble each firearm as he described in detail how he would kill her if she cheated on him. On some mornings, he would tell her how he stood over her with a gun while she was sleeping, trying to figure out if he wanted to shoot her.
“He would always have his finger on the trigger, as if he was teasing me. He would pull back a little bit with his finger, not pulling the trigger back fully, but just touching it and letting go,” Kira recalled. “And then he’d say, ‘You see how easy this is? Just one pull of a trigger and you’re everywhere.’ That was something that he did a lot.”
Kira tried to leave her boyfriend three times after years of physical, mental and financial abuse, and finally did escape. (For her protection, HuffPost is only using her first name.) Her ex-boyfriend was charged with misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief after the last domestic violence incident, and she now has an order of protection against him.
But due to something called the “boyfriend loophole,” people like Kira’s ex could still be able to own firearms despite their domestic violence charges.
The Violence Against Women Act has historically allowed unmarried partners who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to buy or own firearms. Under VAWA, abusers are only prohibited from owning firearms if they are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against a current or former spouse, are a current or former cohabitant, or if they have a child with the victim.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden signed the reauthorization of VAWA through 2027 — major legislation that includes critical new protections for Native women and LGBTQ people, among others. But the boyfriend loophole still stands, which is a disappointment for many survivors, advocates and lawmakers who know just how dangerous the gap in protections really is.
“People think, ‘Oh they’re just boyfriend and girlfriend? Give him his gun back, let’s just hope she’s not dead tomorrow.’”
– Kira, domestic abuse survivor
Some states have stricter gun laws that make up for the loophole at the federal level. For example, Kira’s home state (which HuffPost is not naming due to safety concerns) has its own gun laws that prohibit convicted abusers — dating or married — from owning firearms.
As of 2020, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have pursued legislation to impose stricter gun laws than federal law. Many close the boyfriend loophole and prohibit abusive dating partners — of any gender — who are convicted of intimate partner violence from owning or possessing firearms. Several other states have laws on the books that prohibit convicted stalkers from possessing guns.
Harsher gun laws on the state level are welcomed, but many advocates argue that protections shouldn’t depend on your zip code. The boyfriend loophole leaves many victims of domestic abuse vulnerable to further violence from current or former partners, and closing the gap would prevent convicted stalkers and abusers from buying or owning guns.
“It shouldn’t matter about your marital status or anything,” Kira said. “If two people are in a relationship and one person is using firearms for violence, then they should not have them in the home. I don’t understand why that is such a hard concept for people to understand.”
“Why do you have to put on paper what you are?” she added. “People think, ‘Oh they’re just boyfriend and girlfriend? Give him his gun back, let’s just hope she’s not dead tomorrow.’”
Activists and some lawmakers have long believed the distinction between married and unmarried abusive partners is not important and that the loophole should be closed. But there has been consistent pushback from many Republican lawmakers and gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association. And this time around was no different. After years of trying to reauthorize VAWA since it last expired in 2019, a bipartisan group of senators successfully pushed the bill through Congress. But Democrats had to make some concessions, including stripping out a gun safety provision that would have closed the boyfriend loophole.
“There is nothing that they want to do to learn, understand or prevent the intersection of firearms and domestic violence, and the issues that come with it — including homicide.”
– Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, referring to gun rights groups
The four co-sponsors on the bill — Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — admitted it was a tough but necessary compromise to get VAWA over the finish line.
“This isn’t a perfect bill, and I regret that the boyfriend loophole is not addressed,” Feinstein told CNN last month when the provision to close the loophole was cut from the bill. “Many of us have tried very hard to get there, but it’s a good bill and we need to finally get a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization to the president’s desk.”
Murkowski and Ernst attempted to keep the critical gun safety provision in, but ultimately they didn’t have enough Republican votes to pass the bill with the provision in it.
“The four leads tried for weeks to get this sorted out, but it became clear that we could not get the Republican support necessary with the boyfriend loophole provision included,” a Senate aide told HuffPost. “We were deeply disappointed, but we also recognized how critical the overall bill is and the opportunity we had in this moment to reauthorize and strengthen VAWA and ensure that there are no rollbacks to the critical protections provided in past reauthorizations.”
Anti-domestic violence advocates are frustrated with pro-gun lobbyist groups that continue to put profit over gun safety. “They have one interest and one interest only,” Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said of gun rights groups like the NRA.
“No matter what the issue is, if it has anything to do with gun safety, they are going to be opposed. That’s just their talking point. That’s just their priority. That’s just their policy,” said Glenn, a domestic violence survivor and a key player in reauthorizing the VAWA. “From my perspective, there is nothing that they want to do to learn, understand or prevent the intersection of firearms and domestic violence, and the issues that come with it including homicide.”
About 15 years ago, Congress recognized the problem of dating violence and updated the federal crime of domestic violence to include abuse in unmarried relationships, but it didn’t update the firearms code. This created the gap in protections now referred to as the boyfriend loophole.
Gun violence and intimate partner violence are unfortunately inextricably linked in the U.S. — the only nation in the world where civilian guns outnumber people. Every month, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner, according to advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety.
Research shows that access to a gun makes it five times more likely that an abusive partner will kill his female victim, and nearly half of all women killed in the U.S. are murdered by a current or former intimate partner, according to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. In 2020 alone, 60% of intimate partner homicides were committed by dating partners and 80% of the domestic violence calls to law enforcement involved dating partners, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Women of color face the highest rate of firearm-related intimate partner violence, often due to the intersections of racism and poverty that lead to a lack of protective services. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be fatally shot by an intimate partner.
Clinton Patton will never forget the moment in 2007 when he found out his sister, Ashley Renae Hamilton, had been killed. He was staying at his dad’s house in Dallas for a cousin’s college graduation when he was awakened by the sound of sobs. He got out of bed and went into the kitchen, where he found his entire family crying.
“That boy killed your sister,” Hamilton’s mom told him through tears.
Hamilton was 22 years old when her boyfriend shot and killed her in her Mississippi home. She was goofy and loving, and Patton said she “didn’t take no mess, either.” Her death was heartbreaking, especially since it was avoidable: Just days before Hamilton was killed, Patton said, a judge returned her boyfriend’s gun during a court date over a domestic violence incident. The boyfriend used that gun to kill Hamilton.
“If he didn’t have his gun, she would still be alive today,” said Patton, who has started an anti-domestic violence foundation in his sister’s name. “Cowards use guns because guns provide leverage, and create and increase intimidation on victims.”
Hamilton left behind two children, a 3-month-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
And it’s not just fatal firearm incidents that create or magnify domestic violence situations. Around 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by a romantic partner, and just the threat of a firearm can create an abusive or violent situation.
“Quite frequently when we are talking about this issue, we’re talking about the lethality [of guns]. But we’re not talking about the things that happen when an abusive person has a firearm present and the coercion, terror, harassment and threatening that occurs because of that firearm,” said Glenn, the head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “That’s equally as bad — quote unquote — as addressing the lethality of guns.”
However, several advocates stressed that the current VAWA bill has extremely important protections in it, despite what it lacks.
“There are things that don’t make it to the end that folks may be disappointed about, that we’re disappointed about, but it doesn’t mean that the story is over. And it doesn’t mean that what has been passed is any less important,” said Deborah Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We’re very happy with what’s in this bill and, trust me, we’re going to continue to fight for what’s not in it.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.