Federal gun law closes ‘boyfriend loophole,’ but SC advocates say more changes needed

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Published: Jun. 30, 2022 at 8:13 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 30, 2022 at 8:23 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Groups that work to prevent domestic violence are welcoming a component of the new federal bipartisan gun law that they hope will protect more victims and survivors across the country.

Along with expanding background checks for younger potential gun buyers, incentivizing states to establish red-flag laws, and putting more money toward mental health resources, the law closes the “boyfriend loophole” at the federal level.

Under the old law, a person convicted of domestic abuse was banned from having a gun if they had been married to the victim, had lived with them, or had a child with them.

The new law, signed by President Joe Biden last weekend, expands that prohibition to include offenders who have been in a dating relationship with the victim as well.

“When people use violence in a relationship and they are convicted for that violence or put under a restraining order because of that violence that they’ve used, they are not losing that right to possess a firearm. They are choosing to give that up,” South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Executive Director Sara Barber said.

This change is especially significant in South Carolina, which ranks seventh among all states in the percentage of women who experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.

The most recent version of the Violence Policy Center’s “When Men Murder Women” report, from Sept. 2021, found South Carolina has the sixth-highest rate of women killed by men, and in intimate partner relationships, guns are used in 84% of those homicides. Those figures are based on the state’s 2019 homicide data.

“Research has estimated that if a gun is present in a home where domestic violence is occurring, the woman is five times more likely to be killed, no matter who the gun belongs to, even if it’s her gun,” Barber said.

Barber said laws designed to protect victims and survivors of intimate partner violence do not always take into account how society has changed when it comes to relationships, such as fewer people now getting married as quickly as they once did and more being in long-term dating relationships.

Changes in law like this one catch up to those societal changes and recognize this violence happens in all kinds of relationships.

“For us, this is an important first step in both recognizing the harm that occurs across different kinds of relationships and also that some forms of gun safety legislation are necessary to start making changes in the really high levels of violence that we see here,” Barber said.

But Barber added this change alone is not enough.

“This is federal law, so it would need to be implemented by federal agencies, and that’s a weakness,” Barber said. “Although I think this is an important statement in recognizing that the boyfriend loophole exists and that we need to make changes, implementation of it is going to be very difficult to have any meaningful impact.”

The SCCADVASA executive director pointed to South Carolina’s current state law, under which more expansive domestic violence protections, including firearm restrictions, only apply in situations in which the abuser and victim have been married, live or have lived together, or share a child, so many dating relationships are not covered.

“So we have a still bigger loophole that we need to overcome here,” Barber said.

A bipartisan group of state representatives introduced a House bill to close the boyfriend loophole in South Carolina law during the most recent legislative session.

However, the bill was still stuck in committee when the session ended in May, so it would need to be reintroduced when the General Assembly returns to Columbia at the beginning of 2023 for the start of a new regular session.

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