Behind the decades-long fight to close the 'boyfriend loophole'
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233), or visit https://www.thehotline.org. Find more information on the ‘boyfriend loophole’ from the Giffords Law Center here.
Listen: A bonus podcast episode about a pro-gun community in Louisiana leading the charge on disarming domestic abusers.
A convicted domestic abuser, or anyone who has a personal protective order issued against them, can’t buy or possess a gun. That’s federal law.
Except, there’s a loophole. If the abuser is the victim’s boyfriend, he’s free to own firearms.
“We should be paying attention to what he did as opposed to how long he’s known her or whether he was married to her or whether he had a child with her,” says Susan Sorenson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This is about saving lives,” domestic violence policy advocate Rob Valente says. “This is about a real statistical likelihood of someone being killed by an intimate partner. This is not a gun grab. And if we can’t get ourselves together as a society to do that. I don’t even know what to say.”
Today, On Point: The story behind the decades old fight to close “boyfriend loophole.”
Rob Valente, domestic violence policy advocate for over 30 years. (@robvalentedvpa)
Susan Sorenson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research includes violence against women as a public health issue and firearms as a consumer product. Author ofNew data on intimate partner violence and intimate relationships and Nonfatal Gun Use in Intimate Partner Violence.
Pam Reilly, the mother of Rosemarie Reilly, who was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend.
David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms at the Battered Women’s Justice Project.
Kira, a domestic violence survivor.
Transcript: The Fight To Close The Boyfriend Loophole
CHAKRABARTI: Last month, President Joe Biden signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The act has always been important to him. As Senator, Biden helped write the original legislation in 1990. Here he is in a December hearing that year.
[Archival Tape]: 30% of all the women who seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms for any reason are there because they’re the victims of wife-beating. And most tragically, every week between now and Christmas, about 30 women will be killed by their spouses. So the crisis of domestic violence is taken to its worst extreme.
CHAKRABARTI: The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994. It requires reauthorization every five years, most recently in 2018. But that time around, reauthorization wasn’t a simple, pro-forma vote. It took years of intense lobbying and protracted debate all the way until last month, when the reauthorization finally made it to Biden’s presidential desk.
[Archival Tape]: The idea that this took five years to reauthorize, it drove me crazy the rationale for why we weren’t going — anyway, I don’t want to get it.
CHAKRABARTI: Biden doesn’t want to get into it because it has to do with guns.
This is the story of the long, imperfect process of lawmaking and how imperfect presumptions once baked into the law of the land are often impossible to pry out.
[Archival Tape]: Today, we began to disarm the criminals and the careless and the insane.
CHAKRABARTI: On October 22, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act into law. But even as he put his signature on the act, Johnson lamented that the law did not include a national gun registry, an idea blocked by the NRA.
[Archival Tape]: We must continue to work for the day when Americans can get the full protection, the kind of protection that most civilized nations have long ago adopted.
CHAKRABARTI: However, there was something interesting tucked into the ’68 Gun Control Act, a rule stating that anyone convicted of felony domestic violence could not own a gun. But for many advocates, that bar was too high. Almost 30 years passed before Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, introduced an amendment that lowered the threshold. It would prohibit gun ownership after a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction or if a personal protection order had been issued against the abuser. Even that amendment faced an uphill battle. Here’s Frank Lautenberg on the Senate floor September 26, 1996.
[Archival Tape]: Last night, I learned something about this place that shocks me — I’m here now 14 years — that even a mandate voted 97-to-2 can be dispensed with by a wink of the eye and out of the head and the Rifle Association looking over member’s shoulders.
CHAKRABARTI: Despite the NRA’s lobbying, the Lautenberg amendment did make it into the gun control law in 1996. The Lautenberg amendment defined “intimate partner” as someone who is “current or former spouse of the victim having lived or is living with the victim or has a child with the victim.”
It left out an entire group of intimate partners — convicted abusers who had been dating but never living with the victim. They can still legally own firearms. That is the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”
In 2018, Democrats and survivor advocates saw an opportunity to close the boyfriend loophole. They wanted to do it through the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. As it had done in 1968 and 1996, the National Rifle Association lobbied hard in 2018. Former NRA’s spokeswoman Dana Lash:
[Archival Tape]: When they say that there’s a loophole, there isn’t a loophole. I mean, it’s already codified. … These are the same lawmakers that say they want to empower women, but yet they’re working to diminish due process for men and women and working to disarm us.
CHAKRABARTI: Representative Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, on the House floor there in 2018.
[Archival Tape]: We’re not taking away due process. … All it does is say that if someone has been convicted — convicted — as an intimate partner, that they would not have access to a gun.
CHAKRABARTI: The House passed its version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. With that, boyfriend loophole closed in 2019. Democrats knew it wouldn’t make it through the Senate but sent the House bill there anyway, where it stalled, gathering dust until this year.
Last month, Democrats in the House tried again, and again, the reauthorization was destined to meet a wall of resistance in the Senate. But this time around?
[Archival Tape]: Our bill is a compromise. It doesn’t include everything that Senator Feinstein and I wanted or everything Senator Ernst and Murkowski wanted.
CHAKRABARTI: The provision closing the boyfriend loophole was taken out. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, explained why.
[Archival Tape]: Well, you need 60 votes. And in order to get anywhere near 60 votes, that provision became controversial, and we had to measure the remainder of the bill against that provision. It’s a tough choice.
CHAKRABARTI: The NRA claimed victory, saying in a March 15 statement, “If not for the years-long advocacy campaign by NRA membership and NRA Institute for Legislative Action on Capitol Hill, blocking the expansion of these so-called loopholes could not have been achieved. Members of Congress craft the law. Everyday Americans live it.
Each year, at least 600 women in America are shot and killed by an intimate partner. That’s one woman every 16 hours. About half of the shooters had dated but not married their victims. In Michigan, firearms restrictions are not automatic following the issuance of a temporary personal protection order. It’s left up to a judge to decide. And in one case, the judge chose wrong.
PAM REILLY: We did everything right, but nothing was on our side.
CHAKRABARTI: Pam Reilly lives in New Baltimore, Michigan. In high school, her daughter, Rosemarie, was a straight-A student, played softball, was in the marching band and had a boyfriend, Jeremy Kelley. Rosemarie went off to college at Grand Valley State University. Jeremy went to train as a mechanic in Ohio. He graduated in 2015, went to Grand Rapids and moved in with Rosemarie.
REILLY: When they ended up moving in with each other is when Rosemarie realized how controlling he was, and [it] only took one time of him hitting her, and she wanted out. But he won’t let her leave.
CHAKRABARTI: But Rosemarie did it. She told Jeremy she wanted to end the relationship.
REILLY: And I was meeting her at a restaurant in Granville, and she was a half hour late and I called her and called her and she wasn’t answering. And then finally, she gave me a call and said, “I’m on my way. I’m sorry, I’m running late.” When she walked into the restaurant, and I looked at her, her nose was crooked. I could tell she’d been crying. She had red marks on her neck and her throat area. And then she told me that Jeremy had hit her several times, tried choking her, held a pillow over her face and a gun to her head.
Later, a police report was made and Officer Wallace encouraged her to get a police protection order, and Jeremy was served with it. But later, what really threw him over the edge was: there was two felony arrest warrants out for him, and instead of going and getting him and arresting him, they mailed them to him.
CHAKRABARTI: Rosemarie had checked off two important boxes on the personal protection order request form. One: Does the respondent own firearms? She checked “yes.” Two: Has the respondent threatened to harm or kill you with a gun? Rosemarie checked “yes.”
REILLY: I still, until this day, am dumbfounded how anybody on the street could go up and point a gun to someone and say, “I’m going to kill you,” and you’re not arrested for it.
CHAKRABARTI: On October 17, 2016, a judge granted Rosemarie’s personal protection order. But there was a box the judge did not check — the box that would have prohibited Jeremy from having a gun.
REILLY: So, if the judge had done his job and actually checked that box, the police, I think, would have taken it more seriously.
CHAKRABARTI: All Pam knows for sure is that Jeremy did not take the personal protection order seriously.
REILLY: He never stopped. He never stopped. He called her one day like 78 times. And one day he called her. He emailed her I don’t know how many times. He hacked all her accounts. He changed all her passwords. It was bad.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeremy even showed up at Grand Valley State University and pursued Rosemarie across campus. Pam says her daughter was constantly calling the police. Jeremy was never arrested.
On November 5, 2016, the Reilly family rented a hotel in Grand Rapids. Pam’s husband, John, was turning 60 and the family wanted to celebrate. They went to dinner and lounged by the pool. Rosemarie had taken a big nursing test earlier that day. So after the family celebration wound down, she decided to go out with a classmate.
REILLY: At about 3:13 in the morning, I woke up. And their room — Shelby and Rose Ray’s room — was right next to ours. And I went to go call her to see if she got in OK, and it went right to voicemail. And something in my body just didn’t feel right. You know, I woke up, I was scared, and [said] “God, John, I wonder if she’s in there.” He goes, “Oh, they’re just sleeping, just let them go.”
CHAKRABARTI: At 8:30 that morning, police informed Pam and John that approximately five hours earlier, around 3:30 a.m., Jeremy showed up at Rosemarie’s friend’s house. Rosemarie had answered the door. Jeremy grabbed her by the hair and dragged her outside. He had a gun. She tried to escape. Jeremy Kelley shot Rosemarie repeatedly and then pulled the trigger on himself.
REILLY: I just couldn’t believe that they were telling me that he killed her. I was in shock. I knew he was going to hurt her if he wasn’t arrested. If there was nothing done, she was in grave danger. That’s why we were there. That’s why I was always there for those last couple of weeks.
What happened to her should never have happened to her. That judge should have checked that box, there’s no doubt in my mind. Her funeral was on her 22nd birthday. That’s the hardest thing. But the nightmare I live with every day. And I promised her when I buried her, that if I could prevent one mom, one dad, one sibling from going through what we go through, that she wouldn’t have died in vain.
CHAKRABARTI: Rosemarie Reilly was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy Kelley on November 6, 2016. She was 21. Shortly after her death. Her mother, Pam, found a letter notifying Rosemarie that she’d been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Michigan to study anesthesiology.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about domestic violence and the so-called boyfriend loophole. And joining me now is Susan Sorenson. She’s a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Sorenson, welcome to you.
SUSAN SORENSON: Thank you very much. And hello, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Also with us today is Roberta Valente, a domestic violence policy advocate for more than 30 years. Roberta Valente, welcome to you.
ROBERTA VALENTE: Thanks for having me on this show.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, and Rob, let me just get a little bit of this history from you. Focusing on 1996, when Senator Lautenberg introduced that Lautenberg amendment, it seemed to be maybe the best time to get the broadest protection for women who were suffering from abuse from their intimate partner. So can you tell us why the definition of intimate partner was tailored the way it was in the Lautenberg amendment that produced the boyfriend loophole?
VALENTE: Well, some of it just shows us that things haven’t changed over the years. It was written in a time first that we weren’t thinking about dating partners, but also behind the scenes there was a concern in parts of Congress that the term dating partner would be used as a proxy for okaying same sex relationships. And so they didn’t want to get that kind of language into the Violence Against Women Act, and they didn’t want that amendment to have that either.
So we’ve learned a lot since then. Thanks to researchers like Susan, we’re able to prove how many relationships that are dating. Relationships pose the same risks as the ones that are spousal relationships or former spousal relationships or cohabiting or formally cohabiting or parenting relationships. The bottom line is these are all people who need protection. We want to save their lives.
CHAKRABARTI: So it seems like, again, in order to get to legislation that serves as many people, as many Americans as possible. It’s this imperfect process of compromise after compromise, after compromise. And yet this one particular issue, it seems to be stuck where it is. And we just saw that this year, when Democrats in Congress couldn’t get the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act through the Senate if it didn’t remove attempts to close the boyfriend loophole.
So we’ll talk more about that in a second. But Professor Sorenson, as Rob mentioned, I’d love to get a deeper understanding about how widespread dating partner violence is, particularly in places like where you are in Philadelphia.
SORENSON: Yeah, but there’s two different ways that I can respond to your question. One is that not just for Philadelphia, but for the entire United States. The person who is most likely to murder a woman is going to be an intimate. And among those intimates, the person who is most likely to murder her is a boyfriend. So it’s not a spouse or an ex-spouse, but it’s a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend. And we know from our research for more than 30 years now. That a male intimate with the gun is a person who’s most likely to kill a woman.
In fact, women are 2 to 2.5 times as likely to be murdered by a male intimate with a gun than they are to be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned to death, strangled or killed in any other way by a stranger. So it’s really clear that guns and intimate partners, particularly boyfriends, have a very important part and are a very important cause of death for women across the nation.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, and I just want to focus on Philadelphia for a moment, because I think it’s your research that I was looking at that, you know, in places like Philadelphia, women who have either been injured or killed by firearms that were used by their intimate partners, that the majority of those women or the strong majority of those women were by, like you’re saying, dating partners. Is that right?
SORENSON: That’s correct. And there’s very little research on what we call non-fatal gun violence in intimate partnership or in general, for that matter. But we found when we looked at over 30,000 incidents of domestic violence to which police were called and responded in a single year, over 80% of those involved non-marital relationships and about half of those involved current boyfriends and girlfriends.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So, Rob Valente, let me turn back to you here. What do you say to that?
VALENTE: I think that the data makes the point for us very clearly. And it’s something that advocates no victim advocates know intimately well from anecdotal evidence. We see this all the time and the states even see this in the cities. There have been states and municipalities that have passed laws that recognize that dating partners should be included in this.
But it’s a patchwork. It’s not a complete protection, and it’s not what we need. What we really need is that complete federal protection that we would get by closing the boyfriend loophole. Otherwise, we’re looking at half of these cases being unprotected. And if you think about it, what’s the difference between being married and dating when somebody is pointing a gun at you? It’s a crime either way.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Sorenson, you also mentioned sort of non-lethal physical injuries that come from, as Rob said, having a gun, pointed at a person. We have a story here about that. Back in 2014, Kira, a woman living in New York met a man at the gym and they dated for four years and lived together for three. And throughout most of that time, her boyfriend abused her verbally, emotionally, mentally and physically. He owned five guns, including a Remington 300 and an AR-15.
KIRA: He would intimidate me by lining them up in the hallway or in the living room against the wall. And then he would meticulously take each one and spend a few hours taking them apart, cleaning them in front of me. He would also point them at me a couple of times. It was always an AR-15 that he would point at me, and he wouldn’t pull the trigger.
But he would keep his finger on the trigger, and he would gently kind of touch it and then kind of like and then release it. And he would always point it at me and then would describe how I would look if he shot me. He would always say, Imagine seeing your brain scattered all over the room. When he brought out his AR-15 and pointed at me he felt this control and power that he’s never felt.
But the control that he had over me was so strong that I knew that if I did anything, I could have been gone in a second. And he knew that he had me so wrapped around his world at that point and I couldn’t get out of it.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Kira did eventually get out, and her boyfriend also got convicted of third-degree assault and criminal mischief, both misdemeanors in New York. His sentencing was community service and anger management classes. No jail time. To her knowledge, his guns were taken away from him by his parents, but not the police. And Kira does not know if he has since gotten those weapons back. So, Professor Sorenson, tell us more about what we do know about these kinds of these non-fatal, even nonphysical impacts of guns in intimate partner relationships.
SORENSON: And I’m really glad you’re asking that question, because it’s far more common to be for a woman to be threatened by a gun, then to actually be killed with a gun, of course. And we have just about 4.5 million women who have been threatened by a gun with a partner.
And we found here in our work in Philadelphia that the most common gun use, intimate partner violence was simply brandishing, showing the gun, as you just described in this circumstance, threatening her with a gun, shooting at a pistol whipping was far less common. And that’s really important because as the individual who you interviewed reported; it creates an environment of terror in the home. It creates a horrible sense of fear. And it really facilitates what would be considered chronic and escalating abuse.
Because someone has that gun, someone can take your life within a moment and they’re letting you know that gun use in a relationship is not a sign of healthy relationship. When I speak about this, I often will talk about if we’re faced with someone in the street who says, give me your wallet, give me your purse.
If they just simply say that, you might turn and run or fight back. But if they approach us with those same words and they’re pointing a gun at us, we’re likely to acquiesce to say, Wait a minute, isn’t there another way we can handle this? Here’s what you want. What else do you need? And to back down. And that same process is likely to occur in the home.
Yeah, well, and in fact, with the example that you gave about, you know, being robbed in the street, if a gun is used for the exact same action, the law even sees the crime differently. I mean, that gets to the heart of the point becomes a gun crime then, which is not what’s happening in with the persistence of the boyfriend loophole.
So I’d like to just dig into specifically in much more detail about why the loophole is having such a tough time getting close. And Rob, let me turn back to you here, because we heard over and over again in 2018, 2019, and every year thereafter, primarily and most vocally from the NRA, that closing the boyfriend loophole was not needed because of what’s written in the Lautenberg amendment already … would be essentially denying dating partner’s due process. And unnecessarily taking away their weapons. What’s your response to that?
VALENTE: I’m so glad you asked that question, especially referencing due process. That is literally written into the law that’s on the books right now. It says that following appropriate due process and adding another relationship to this would not change that at all. And I can tell you, as someone who has seen how the justice system handles these cases, and what it takes for a judge to actually make a finding that would impair somebodies access to a firearm. It’s a very high standard. It’s a standard of violence.
The NRA continually puts out information that says, oh, you might have gone to a bar and met a woman there and you got her phone number. And when you called her, she suddenly decided she didn’t want to see you anymore. So then she got a protection order against you and then you lost your gun just because some woman flirted with you. That’s not true. That’s simply incorrect. There has to be the kinds of violent threats that we’re talking about. You know, in these stories that you’ve taped and shared with us.
CHAKRABARTI: Rob, before you continue, I mean, we’re getting some questions about exactly this because of the sort of, by definition, uncertainty that is in dating relationships. I mean, the law sees marriages in a certain way. Right. There’s a piece of paper to prove the existence of a legal relationship there. So, for example, someone … is asking, wouldn’t it be difficult to prove a dating relationship exists in a situation as opposed to proof of a marriage? And doesn’t that complicate things?
VALENTE: I can understand that. And in working towards getting this loophole closed that has been raised. One thing I can tell you is that currently in federal law, there is a crime of what we call dating violence. It’s literally in the U.S. code under Title 18. And there’s a definition of what constitutes a dating relationship that would be a requisite part of proving dating violence. And it’s defined as a relationship of a romantic nature that has been going on for a substantial amount of time. And there are clear indications of dating or romantic behavior between the partners.
And this is a definition that was adopted in a lot of the states just for dating violence. And this is separate from just the issue of firearms. It is whether or not someone can get a protection order or whether or not if someone’s assaulted by someone they’ve been dating, will that constitute a crime of dating violence? And we have a large body of case law, and we’ve been doing this for years. So the judges know what the standards are for this.
CHAKRABARTI: So just to be clear, what you’re saying is that no matter what, someone has to go to court and either the abuser ends up being convicted of a misdemeanor. So there has been a judicial process there. Or there has to be a standard of proof provided to a judge so that the judge issues a personal protective order. And the only difference we’re seeing now is those things have to happen. And if the person, the abuser, is a former spouse, then the weapons are taken away. But if they’re not, the person gets to keep them. But the process is the same.
VALENTE: It is. And another way of putting that is to say both the married partner, intimate partner and the dating intimate partner are entitled to get a protection order. But only the married one is entitled to get the protection against fire firearms violence. And so if the finding is sufficient to issue the protection order, or to convict someone of the misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or dating violence, why are we just suddenly making that exception happen? It just puts too many people at risk.
CHAKRABARTI: Here’s a note that we’ve received from a listener on Facebook. Harmony writes to us:
My adult boyfriend used to point loaded guns at me regularly and gloat that he could just pull the trigger, among regular, brutal sexual assaults. There was always a loaded gun in the room, every vehicle. I never reported him because his dad was a cop, and I was still in high school and homeless, and they made it clear no one would believe me.
That’s just one of the many messages we’re getting from listeners as we talk this hour about the so-called boyfriend loophole in federal law that makes it impossible for dating partners who have been convicted of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence crimes, or who have a personal protective protection order issued against them, they can keep their guns. And we’re talking about why that is today.
Now, I just want to talk about imagining a future for a moment, if and when this boyfriend loophole gets closed, because even then, there’s still a lingering challenge, and that is how to enforce the prohibition on the weapons in the first place.
DAVID KECK: Under federal law, you’d be advised that continual possession of a firearm is a violation of the law. But there would be no federal law ordering you to surrender the firearms, or no even an instruction on how to do it, or where to do it or a requirement that you do it.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s David Keck. He is the director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms at the Battered Women’s Justice Project. And Keck says without any protocols, it’s really up to the offenders.
KECK: In fact, we call it the honor system. It’s on their honor to do the right thing and turn in their guns because now they know they can’t have them. It’s a big fantasy. It’s a myth. Nobody behaves like that. Relinquishment of guns is not automatic. It just isn’t in this country. People expect it and we expect it should be. But unless you deliberately put together a protocol, you just can’t.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, seven states do require convicted abusers to give up their firearms. And in California, Connecticut and Nevada, offenders are explicitly ordered to prove to courts or law enforcement that they have turned over their guns.
Several local jurisdictions have also taken steps to prove surrender, including King County, Washington, Harris County, Texas, and Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. Keck travels across the country, talking to various municipalities and law enforcement agencies about the best ways to get the guns turned in. Police departments, though, tell them they don’t have the resources or can’t store the weapons, and they’re concerned about the Second Amendment.
KECK: They’re not sure that they have the authority to really do something. And what they’re concerned about is really about thinking about the Second Amendment issue, which I’m going to say again, is not an issue in these cases. Because if you qualify for one of the federal prohibited others, by definition, you don’t have a Second Amendment right.
CHAKRABARTI: Keck says his responses to those law enforcement officers, find a way to do it in order to save lives.
KECK: Don’t wait till it’s too late. Don’t let somebody get killed before you do something about it, you know? I know it’s hard. I know it’s a challenge. It’s uncomfortable to think about and talk about. But if you’re talking about it now, let’s do it now … don’t wait until somebody gets killed. I mean, these are all preventable and predictable homicides. I mean, they just are.
CHAKRABARTI: David Keck, he’s the director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms at the Battered Women’s Justice Project. And there was a congressional bill that would have developed best practices for states and municipalities to create firearms relinquishment programs, and would have also offered agencies grants for those programs. But that bill has failed twice so far.
So Professor Sorenson and Rob Valente, I do want to focus on the state level here for a moment. And Professor Sorenson, I’ll just start with you. As often things go in this country, it’s the states that can take the lead. And there are several states that have effectively essentially closed that so-called boyfriend loophole. Do you think that that is a better way to try to expand protection for women and survivors for as long as there’s going to be this sort of concerted resistance on Capitol Hill?
SORENSON: Yeah. That might be a question best posed to a legal scholar who knows how these things work, because that’s not who I am. But I think either way it needs to be done. And whether it’s at the state level or at the federal level, we need to have these laws in place that protect all people, regardless of marital status, childbearing, and whether they cohabitate.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Rob Valente, I’ll turn that question to you. Go ahead. I mean, do you think that state level action can supplant no action in the federal government?
VALENTE: No. And that’s because we need both systems. It is a complicated dance that we do to try to keep survivors of domestic violence from suffering any further. And we need both state actors and federal actors who have the authority to move in. One thing I can tell you is I have often received phone calls or emails from local law enforcement folks who say we’re in a small area. We don’t have a lot of resources. We have a domestic violence offender. He’s been convicted of domestic violence on a misdemeanor level.
He fits all the qualifications for both the state level and the federal level. But we can’t go in and get those guns because he’s got 300 of them and we’re not able to deal with it. It’s a partnership. There are times when the ATF is the appropriate agency to come in and deal with the issue, and the U.S. attorney is the proper one to prosecute the issue, especially if crossing interstate boundaries.
On the other hand, the state officials are the ones who really know what’s happening on the ground. And they can see that the calls are coming in more frequently, or what they come and find when they answer domestic violence calls is escalating violence. If everybody’s doing their job well, then both are working together as partners to figure out which tools are the best ones to use. So absolutely, we need all of the states to develop their laws, and we also need this fixed on the federal level.
CHAKRABARTI: And so we are seeing this patchwork, though, as always happens when states try to step in where the federal government will not. And I’m thinking back to the story we heard at the beginning of the show with Rosemarie, who was who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I mean, she had been physically abused by him, her mother had taken her to the emergency room.
There was no doubt that violence was going on to the point where she got that personal protection order granted. But all it took was the judge not checking that one box. So there was judicial discretion in this case that could have essentially, you know, close the boyfriend loophole for that one case. But it didn’t happen. So I wanted to actually get both of your responses to that. I mean, how often does something like that happen? And what does it tell you about what an effective rule or law should look like?
VALENTE: This is enforcement again. This is going to the question that Dave Keck addressed so eloquently. We have these laws in many places. We also have, as you note, judicial discretion. Sometimes judges don’t make findings that are necessary. And sometimes judges do everything right. Law enforcement picks up the guns and then the abuser goes onto Armslist and gets new ones and no one knows about it. It is a very complicated system, as I referred to before.
And it takes a very concerted effort within the justice community and the victim services community to work together to figure out how all these pieces are going to come together. And one other thing I just want to note is this is one of the most dangerous times for a survivor of domestic violence. When the justice system does step in to take away the guns or to issue a protection order, that’s when the violence may escalate greatly to the point of homicide, because the abuser will retaliate.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, that’s literally what we heard in that case.
VALENTE: That’s exactly right.
CHAKRABARTI: It was basically only three weeks between when she got the personal protection order and then when her ex-boyfriend showed up at their friend’s house and shot her to death.
VALENTE: So what this really points to is that that often what we have is a conviction occurs, a protection order is issued, and then there’s not a lot of follow up. And the burden falls on the survivor of domestic violence to keep egging law enforcement on, and the courts on to keep that compliance going. It may be up to the survivor to say he’s got new guns. What are you going to do? You know, somebody needs to come out and deal with it. I have gotten many of those calls, too, and it’s very frustrating.
And I have tried to help survivors who are in that situation, calling law enforcement. There is not enough understanding of who has what authority this is. Dave referred to protocols that have to be developed. It’s a simple sentence, but it’s a big process. Right now, the U.S. Department of Justice is funding about a dozen jurisdictions to sit down and really work this out, to really think about who has to be responsible for making this whole thing work.
And it’s the courts. It’s the clerks of the courts, the judges in the courts. It’s different law enforcement. It’s the sheriff’s department. Those are often the ones who come and get the guns. It’s also the data. People who just have to tell people. You have to have those people who are letting the sheriffs know there’s somebody who’s got a protection order against them.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to actually take a step back for a second and talk about what do we know about the effectiveness of even requiring someone to give up their guns after they’ve received that misdemeanor or felony domestic violence conviction or the personal protection order? Because we should have at least from your research some data that can tell us whether or not it’s effective, because it applies to right now to currently or formerly married couple. So has it made a difference?
SORENSON: There’s been very little research on that topic, and the standard for measuring the impact is really high. Look, we look only at the homicides. We don’t look at the use, which is far more common, which is the non-fatal use in a partnership. But if we look specifically at the homicides, we do find that there is an effect of the domestic violence restraining orders and having firearm prohibitions associated with those orders. But those are effective in reducing homicides only when the firearms restrictions include dating partners.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more about that. I’m a little confused. So there is an effect in terms of homicide rates have gone down when abusers have been told they have to give up their firearms, but only when it includes dating partners? I’m a little confused.
SORENSON: Yes. There’s the way these laws are written in different states, and that’s the research that we do have. That’s the best quality research that looks at the effects of the laws across states. Those who say domestic violence abuser who is convicted of a risk are found to be subject to a restraining order, which is sometimes called the protection from abuse order, across the country.
If that is in place in a jurisdiction, there’s not much effect on whether or not a woman is murdered. But if those laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order include boyfriends, include dating partners. Then we see an effect and homicides are less likely.
So it points to the importance of including dating partners in firearms restrictions.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. And is this because this links back to what you said earlier, that those most more likely to actually commit the homicides are boyfriends rather than spouses?
SORENSON: Exactly. That’s why it’s so important to include dating partners in the legislation at both the state and the federal level. … In the field of gun violence, we tend to think in dichotomies, is it this or is it that? Is it one thing or the other? And we pose them as if they’re in conflict. But it’s really important to consider the federal work and the state local work and legislative work as in partnership, rather than being opposed to one another.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’ve just got about a minute left. And Rob Valente, I’m going to give you the last word here today. We’re going to go back to where we started, which is the fact that it’s been more than 20 years now of concerted effort to try to close this boyfriend loophole.
And we saw over the past couple of years that it feels next to impossible at the moment, that in fact, the entire Violence Against Women Act was hanging by a thread for as long as closing the boyfriend loophole provision was in there. Do you still hold on to hope that things could change at the federal level?
VALENTE: I absolutely think we can do this. And why? Because I’ve been to those offices, and I’ve spoken to those senators and to those representatives and their staff. And many of them know that truly this is going on. They are afraid of the NRA. And we have to figure out how to be able to get them to feel more confident in saving lives, because that’s what we’re really asking them to do, and they know it.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.