In the months-old Senate battle over reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the debate keeps returning to one issue in particular: closing the so-called boyfriend loophole.
Republicans say the provision—which would prevent abusive dating partners from accessing firearms—is too political and will never make it past a GOP-controlled chamber. But documents obtained by The Daily Beast show the issue may not be as divisive as Republicans want it to seem—in fact, even Donald Trump’s Department of Justice supports it.
Advocates have been begging legislators to close the boyfriend loophole for years. Under current law, anyone convicted of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence is barred from owning a weapon—a widely accepted restriction, given that women are five times more likely to be murdered if their abuser has a gun.
But the current law only applies to abusers who were married to their partners, lived with them, or had children with them. This creates the loophole, allowing abusers who dated their partners—but didn’t live with them or have children with them—to purchase weapons.
In April, when the Democrat-controlled House passed a bill changing the statute to include current or former dating partners, advocacy groups applauded the House for “understanding the lethal intersection presented by domestic violence and firearms.”
But the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, after the National Rifle Association threatened to negatively rate any legislator who voted to close the loophole. In an interview with The New York Times, NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker accused Democrats of inserting the provision into their VAWA bill as a “poison pill” to make Republicans who voted against the legislation look anti-woman.
After eight months of fruitless negotiations, Senate Democrats introduced their own version of the bill in November, with language nearly identical to the House version. Days later, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) released her own version—which, unsurprisingly, kept the boyfriend loophole intact.
At the time, Ernst said the Democratic version of the bill would never earn the support of the Senate, and she accused Democrats of taking an “overly broad” approach to closing the loophole. In a meeting with reporters, she claimed the bill was “full of political talking points” and later said it did not respect due process .
But documents obtained by The Daily Beast show that the Department of Justice—which has been criticized by advocates as being too soft on gun control—is in favor of closing the loophole.
In June, the DOJ sent nearly 40 pages of comments on the House bill to members of Congress. While the comments were largely negative—the department wrote that it “opposes” the vast majority of the proposed amendments—the DOJ said it supported the inclusion of dating partners as possible domestic violence perpetrators. The change, they wrote, would extend federal firearms protections “to victims whose current or former dating partners have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses.”
Reached by The Daily Beast, a DOJ spokesperson said the office does not comment on pending legislation. Representatives for Ernst did not respond to a request for comment.
More than half of all female homicides are related to intimate partner violence, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control study; according to a 2014 study from Everytown For Gun Safety, the perpetrators are more likely to be dating partners than spouses. Previous studies have found women in the U.S. are 21 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries.
Allison Randall, the vice president for policy and emerging issues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that when VAWA was first introduced in 1994, the conversation around domestic violence largely centered around marital relationships. Now, as less traditional relationships become more common, Randall said the law needs to be clarified to include those situations, too.
“It’s not about adding some whole new gun control measure by any means,” she added. “It’s just about including people who really were intended to be part of it all along.”
Randall was working as chief of staff at the DOJ’s Office of Violence Against Women when the department issued its recommendations on the House bill. While she could not speak on behalf of the DOJ, she noted that the office had stepped up its efforts to prosecute gun crimes in order to reduce domestic violence.
This summer, the DOJ launched a nine-member working group on Prosecuting Gun Crimes to Stop and Reduce Domestic Violence. In March, Katherine Sullivan, who was then the acting director of the Office of Violence Against Women, wrote glowingly about the national increase in domestic violence and firearm convictions. (Trump’s pick for the director job, Shannon Goessling, who once called her Glock her “best friend,” has not been confirmed.)
“From the perspective of prosecutors who are working to reduce homicides and reduce violent crimes, they want to see common-sense, due-process-respecting restrictions on firearms because they see that will help reduce domestic violence homicide and other kinds of violent crimes,” Randall said.
Ruth Glenn, the president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the DOJ’s support for closing the boyfriend loophole proved that it was a practical, nonpartisan solution to reducing domestic violence. Ernst’s failure to include it in her bill, she added, was a “horrible miss.”
“I think that as a survivor herself, unfortunately Senator Ernst has not heard from those survivors—like me—who have been the victim of the intersection of domestic violence and firearms,” she said.
She added, “I'm disappointed as a survivor that somehow she hasn’t come to that understanding, and I’m disappointed that this version of vawa does nothing for those who are most vulnerable.”