In 2014, Sarah Engle testified before the Wisconsin state legislature about a terrifying night, six years earlier, when her abusive boyfriend broke into her home. After shooting and killing her mother, he raped her at gunpoint several times.
“Even when I had to use the bathroom,” she testified, “he would stand there and point the gun at me—always threatening to shoot me. He even shot the gun once to let me know it worked.” She doesn’t recall being shot in the face, but when she woke up and found her way to a hospital, she was told that she “was shot at such close range, [her] skin burned immediately, preventing her from bleeding to death.”
Her boyfriend had an active domestic abuse restraining order against him, yet he still managed to get his hands on a gun. And because of that, Engle lost her mother and, she told Good Housekeeping, half her face is now paralyzed, the other half numb. She also has a metal eye socket as hers was shattered.
Two months after her testimony, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that expanded protections for domestic abuse victims. One of these provisions established a process through which people convicted of domestic abuse can relinquish their guns; if they don’t, a court can issue a warrant for their arrest.
Although federal law does recognize that domestic abusers should not be allowed to buy or own potentially deadly weapons, that doesn’t necessarily stop them from doing so. One gap that’s particularly alarming—because it leaves a whole group of people vulnerable simply because of their marital status—is called the “boyfriend loophole.”
Back in the 90s, Congress passed the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, also known as the Lautenberg Amendment. The problem is that the law only bans attackers who are or have been married, have children with, or live or used to live with their victims from purchasing or owning a firearm. Under federal law, people like Engle’s boyfriend (who was sentenced to life without parole) can still pass a background check when they attempt to purchase a firearm. Currently, only 27 states have passed laws expanding on these federal protections, making it illegal for people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses—including dating partners—to buy or own guns.
“Dangerous boyfriends can be just as scary as dangerous husbands,” a Wisconsin sheriff testified in 2014 in support of a federal bill that would close the loophole altogether. “They hit just as hard and they fire their guns with the same deadly force.” (To date, there’s been no movement on this fix in either the House or Senate.)
According to the Department of Justice, more than half of women killed with guns in 2011 were killed by their intimate partners or family members. A recently published study from the University of Pennsylvania also found that out of more than 31,000 Philadelphia police reports, 82 percent of intimate partner violence incidents involved current or former dating partners. In short: boyfriends and girlfriends may be more likely to attack their partners than spouses.
Moreover, guns have the capacity to be harmful even when they’re not fired. According to a study that came out of Yale last year, women who were just threatened with a firearm were more likely to experience a worsening of PTSD symptoms.
That’s why some states have stepped up to install legislation that protects all victims of domestic abuse from gun violence, whether they’re married to or casually dating their partner. In early March, Oregon became the latest state to close the boyfriend loophole.
"It’s about legislators being educated about the loophole in the first place and then understanding that it’s completely within their power to fix it.”
“We know that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed,” Gov. Kate Brown said during a signing event. “Signing this bill today and closing the intimate partner loophole will help save lives.”
Last year, Louisiana updated its statutes to include “dating partners” on the list of abusers who were banned from owning guns. Kansas and Nebraska are also currently considering similar legislation that would make it illegal for anyone who’s been involved in a dating relationship and convicted of domestic violence to own a firearm.
Meanwhile, in places like Georgia, Kentucky, and Florida, a person who has been ordered by the court to stay away from someone they abused while dating is still legally able to purchase a firearm.
According to Laura Cutilletta, the legal director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, more states are enacting laws to improve the way they regulate gun access when it comes to domestic abusers. However, she notes, that looks differently in every state. At least 23 states have bills pending that would close domestic violence loopholes.
“There are laws that prohibit certain people from owning guns, and that is where the boyfriend loophole comes in,” she tells Broadly. “But then there are also laws that take the next step, which is to make sure people who are prohibited actually relinquish their guns. I think that there’s a lot left to be done in this area because there are so many loopholes. It’s such a complicated problem.”
Cutilletta acknowledges that the “boyfriend loophole” leaves a big gap in policy, especially if the intent is to save lives. “We’ve become much more sophisticated as a society in understanding family violence in all its forms rather than thinking about it as spousal violence. I don’t know why more states don’t [close this loophole],” she says. “Dating violence is very prevalent, and it’s actually something that can lead to lethality in many cases, so it’s really a serious problem. ”
She continues: “I think some of it is about awareness. It’s about legislators being educated about the loophole in the first place and then understanding that it’s completely within their power to fix it.”