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The Senate gun bill would close the 'boyfriend loophole.' Here's what that means

The U.S. Capitol Dome is pictured in Washington on Tuesday, the day Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan agreement on a gun safety bill.
Anna Moneymaker
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The U.S. Capitol Dome is pictured in Washington on Tuesday, the day Senate negotiators reached a bipartisan agreement on a gun safety bill.

Updated June 23, 2022 at 11:47 AM ET

Congress soon may pass its most significant gun legislation in three decades. Senators are working to fast-track a bipartisan gun safety bill that negotiators recently finalized, spurred by mass shootings last month in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.

The Senate, which advanced the bill in a 64-34 vote on Tuesday, will hold a procedural vote on Thursday to end debate and prevent a filibuster from blocking the bill.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is expected to clear that vote and head for final passage in the Senate by the weekend, just ahead of lawmakers' July recess. It would then go to the House for expected passage, at which point President Biden — who has urged Congress to move without delay — has said he would sign it.

The bill's measures are narrowly focused, with lawmakers aiming to craft legislation that would earn a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the evenly-divided Senate. That means it falls short of many of the changes that Democrats long have been pushed for, including universal background checks and a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles.

Still, Democrats and gun safety advocates are hailing the legislation as an important and incremental step in the right direction. Among other provisions, it would expand background checks for prospective gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21, incentivize states to create red-flag laws, and give states more funding for school safety and mental health resources.

It also would close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" in a law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun. That law currently only applies to people who are married to, living with or have a child with the victim.

April Zeoli, a professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University, says those limited categories don't reflect the fact that people spend a lot more time dating now than they did in the past, with women marrying on average in their late 20s and men in their early 30s.

"Because we spend all this time dating, it doesn't mean that violence doesn't happen," Zeoli told Morning Edition's A Martínez. "It still happens, but the dating partners right now aren't covered by the federal restriction."

More than a thousand women are killed by intimate partners every year in the United States, based on FBI and CDC data, and about half of the intimate partner homicides in the U.S. are perpetrated by an unmarried partner, a 2018 study found.

The bill would close the loophole, but add a caveat

Democrats long have tried to broaden the definition of who qualifies for the ban. Their most recent attempt, an effort to add it to the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that passed in March, was unsuccessful.

While that effort was on going, some states addressed the boyfriend loophole within their jurisdictions.

Thirty-one states have policies prohibiting convicted domestic abusers from having guns, according to a tracker from Everytown for Gun Safety. Of those, 19 go beyond the federal prohibition to cover abusive dating partners.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is poised to finally make that change on the federal level. It adds and defines the term dating relationship as "a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature," with considerations for the length and nature of the relationship as well as the frequency and type of interactions between the individuals involved.

The bill includes a related provision, allowing people who were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to have their gun rights restored if their record stays clean for five years. There are some exceptions for victims' spouses, parents, guardians or cohabitants.

Zeoli says she'd like to know more about the reasoning behind that provision, as it doesn't appear to be informed by any research.

"If we're talking about dating partners versus spouses, both of them can do the same types of violence, both of them can be the same level of dangerous, get the same conviction and get the same firearm restriction," she said. "But the spouses will have this lifetime firearm restriction, and the dating partners will have this five-year restriction, and I don't know the logic behind that disparity."

Baseless fears of deception and retaliation

Why hasn't the federal law evolved with the times or research data? Zeoli offers one explanation:

"I think that there has always been a fear that women will make things up, that women will try to take revenge on their dating partners through lying about abuse and trying to get these firearm restrictions on them," she says. "And that fear is unfounded. In fact ... a large proportion of people who experience abuse never report it to the courts or law enforcement."

As a researcher, she says it's been difficult to watch as measures that data suggest could save lives — such as closing the boyfriend loophole — haven't been implemented. Zeoli says the bipartisan bill, even with its limited provisions, is a step in the right direction.

"I am encouraged by the fact that we are seeing movement at the federal level on gun safety legislation, when we haven't seen it for literally decades," Zeoli says.

The audio for this interview was produced by Jeevika Verma and Ben Abrams, and edited by Raquel Maria Dillon.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. That can include a local shelter, or call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.