Gun safety legislation would close ‘boyfriend loophole’ on gun sales. Will it help?

Patrick Semansky/AP
·4 min read

Additional protection for victims of domestic violence is included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which passed the Senate Thursday night.

The bill would close what is known as the ‘”boyfriend loophole,” which refers to a gap on who can purchase a gun with a history of domestic violence. The boyfriend loophole has been the topic of debate among lawmakers who have tried for years to close the gap.

In North Carolina, 141 people were shot and killed by an abusive partner between 2016 and 2020 and 72% of those victims were women.

The boyfriend loophole

Currently, federal law prohibits gun sales to people with convictions of domestic violence or who have had a restraining order taken out against them. However, the law only extends to people if they are married to, live with or have had a child with the victim.

Closing the boyfriend loophole would include people who are in a serious “dating relationship” with a victim and have a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.

However, there are some stipulations.

The legislation has no clear definition of what a “dating relationship” is and leaves it up to courts to make the decision by looking at the nature of the relationship, the length and the “the frequency and type of interaction between the individuals involved.”

Additionally, the gun-buying ban on abusers only lasts for five years and they can have their gun rights restored if they don’t re-offend in that time frame.

Domestic violence advocates in the Triangle who were hoping for more protections for victims had mixed reactions to the new bill.

At the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, advocates have been monitoring the 63 deadly domestic violence cases in the state in 2021. Many of those cases involved firearms, said Kathleen Lockwood, the organization’s policy director.

“Even if we’re not talking about what our courts in North Carolina are doing, what happens outside of our state still impacts residents within it,” Lockwood said. “We’re grateful to see attention shown on the presence of a firearm.”

She said the organization is excited about the potential of the federal law closing the boyfriend loophole but “unfortunately the situation in North Carolina’s a little complicated.”

The loophole applies to federal law’s ability to restrict firearm access when there is a conviction of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence but in North Carolina, the most common misdemeanor crimes charged in domestic situations are assault or simple assault.

Because a Supreme Court ruling from 2015, in United States v. Vinson, those crimes don’t meet the requirement of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

“The impact in North Carolina is unfortunately not going to be significant,” Lockwood said. “But for the most part at the Coalition, we are still celebrating this legislation because we know so clearly how the presence of a firearm in a home can really increase the lethality of situations.”

The organization, based in Durham, has served the area’s victims of domestic violence for more than 30 years.

An opportunity for more

In Johnston County, Kay Johnson wants counseling to be required in domestic violence cases. Barring people from obtaining a weapon for five years may not be enough, she said.

Some legislators have called five year limit a chance for people to straighten up.

“If it has occurred one time and a weapon was used, then more than likely if there are no parameters put in place, then this individual may display this behavior again with another partner,” Johnson said.

As the executive director of Harbor of Johnston County, a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, Johnson wants to be sure victims receive trauma counseling but the organization itself doesn’t work with abusers.

“We know that domestic violence, intimate-partner relationship violence, is about power and control,” Johnson said. “If someone is exhibiting that over another individual, then oftentimes we find that it didn’t just start with them. There is some childhood trauma there. Mandating some type of therapy, it is my hope that they address that trauma that usually precipitates that type of violence.”

In the last six months, Harbor has seen a nearly 25% increase in the number of victims of domestic violence seeking support in getting protective orders, legal representation, child custody, and therapy, Johnson said.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, the North Carolina legislator who joined eight other Republicans and 10 Democrats to push the legislation, told the N&O that included in the bill is a large component for behavioral health. There will be investments to increase access to mental health care and suicide prevention programs as well as crisis and trauma intervention.

“I’m glad that (the loophole) is being discussed due to the prevalence and insidious nature of violence against women ingrained in our culture and society,” said Brace Boone, the executive director of the Women’s Center in Raleigh.

The organization serves as a front line for victims of domestic violence and their families, he said.

“We’re always wanting to put forward in the public arena discussions about the prevalence of ... violence towards women all the way to exploitation and trafficking,” Boone said. He said there are usually benefits to the cause “anytime political leaders are talking about domestic violence.”