Expert Commentary

What is the ‘boyfriend loophole’ in federal gun law and what does the research say?

With new federal legislation tightening but not closing the boyfriend loophole, we update our 2020 piece on the topic with new research on intimate partner violence perpetrated with firearms.

boyfriend loophole

President Joe Biden on June 25 signed the most extensive federal gun-related legislation in decades. Among other measures designed to prevent potentially violent people from legally buying guns, the new law tightens — but does not close — the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”

Federal law prohibits legal gun ownership among people convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime involving the use or attempted use of physical force or a deadly weapon. A misdemeanor is generally considered a less serious offense than a felony, punishable by no more than one year incarceration. Most people convicted of any felony cannot buy or own a firearm.

The so-called “boyfriend loophole” previously hinged on how federal law defined “intimate partner.” For a person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to be barred from owning a gun, that person had to be a current or former spouse of the survivor, have lived or be living with the survivor, or have a child with the survivor.

The boyfriend loophole meant someone dating the survivor who had never lived with the survivor and didn’t have a child with them could legally own a gun — even after having been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime.

The new legislation strips the clause that survivor and abuser have to live or have lived together. It prohibits an abuser in a “dating relationship,” defined as “a relationship between individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature,” from legally owning a gun if they are convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.

Individuals without a conviction but with a domestic violence restraining order against them who do not live with their partner or do not have a child with them can still legally obtain guns — meaning there remains some daylight in the boyfriend loophole. Also, the law is not retroactive, so it only applies to convictions moving forward.

Here, we update our summary of academic research on the boyfriend loophole, originally published in 2020, with the latest analyses.

Intimate partner violence: Overview

Women are victims of intimate partner violence at a rate five times that of men, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, analyzing national data from 2003 to 2014, found in a July 2017 research report that more than half of women killed during that period were killed by intimate partners.

In another paper, published in March 2019 in Violence and Gender, researchers analyze national data from 2010 to 2017, finding that “nearly half of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, compared with only 5% of male homicide victims.”

Intimate partner homicide victims under 18 are likely to be girls or young women killed by someone using a firearm, according to an April 2019 paper in JAMA Pediatrics that examines data from 32 states from 2003 to 2016. Nearly 7% of the 2,188 adolescent homicide victims in the sample — average age of about 17 — were killed by intimate partners, and nearly two-thirds of those victims were killed by someone using a firearm.

“Adolescents, particularly girls, in dating relationships may face risk of homicide, especially in circumstances of a breakup or jealousy and when perpetrators have access to firearms,” the authors write.

Based on interviews with 53 people who work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the authors of a December 2021 paper in the journal Violence Against Women write that “that the COVID-19 pandemic offers unique opportunities for manipulative and controlling behaviors within intimate relationships. Study participants described abusive behaviors that centered on limiting access to health care, threatening to infect a survivor, or challenging a survivor’s belief about the need for mitigation strategies such as physical distancing.”

People experiencing domestic violence who need crisis intervention, safety planning and other help can reach out to the federally funded National Domestic Violence Hotline.

loveisrespect, a project of the hotline, is for teens experiencing domestic violence.

Formative findings

State laws that restrict people who have been served domestic violence restraining orders from obtaining firearms were associated with a 25% reduced risk of intimate partner homicides by gun, and an overall 19% reduced risk of intimate partner homicide, according to a study of data from 1979 to 2003 in 46 of the largest U.S. cities, published in November 2009 in Injury Prevention.

A review of more than 31,000 intimate partner violence incidents reported to Philadelphia police in 2013 found that 82% of those incidents involved current or former boyfriends or girlfriends. But more than half of the adult population in Philadelphia has never been married, the largest percentage of the 10 largest U.S. cities, the authors note in their paper, published in February 2018 in Preventive Medicine. Other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are close behind. People in rural areas are slightly more likely to be married than people in urban areas, according to the Pew Research Center.

“And when it comes to fatalities, women in the United States are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by their male intimate as they are to be fatally shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, strangled, or killed in any other way by a stranger,” writes one of the authors, University of Pennsylvania social policy and public health professor Susan Sorenson, in a different paper from March 2017 on the same topic.

Recent research

State-level firearm restrictions for people served a domestic violence restraining order are effective in reducing intimate partner violence perpetrated with guns for some, but not all populations, recent research suggests.

In examining data from 1981 to 2013 and covering 45 states, the authors of a June 2021 paper in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence associates laws that aim to prevent those with a domestic violence restraining order from legally getting a gun with a 16% reduction in gun-related intimate partner violence — but only for white victims.

The authors did not find any such association for Black victims. They only compared Black and white victims because the data did not provide breakdowns by ethnicity. The authors stress more research is needed to identify reasons for their findings, but write that the association “may be reflective of heightened firearm ownership rates among White Americans; in other words, White Americans would be the group that experienced the most change in gun possession status if relinquishment were enforced.”

The new gun law is not retroactive, and it’s not always the case that when someone is convicted of a domestic violence offense they are forced to give up guns they already have. The authors of a January 2021 paper in the Journal of Family Violence develop case studies of four unnamed jurisdictions in four U.S. states where law enforcement personnel actively repossess guns after someone is served a civil or criminal restraining order or convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense.

“Investing in people to develop an understanding of the trajectories of violent relationships, known risk factors, and evidence-informed policies and programs to effectively intervene to reduce the risk and interrupt these trajectories will be valuable to future implementation efforts that aim to realize firearm dispossession among those newly prohibited because of domestic violence,” the authors write.

Other research suggests the use of guns in a domestic homicide is associated with a higher likelihood there will be multiple victims. The authors of a March 2020 paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law analyzed FBI data from 1976 to 2016, concluding that “Male perpetrators of domestic homicide are nearly twice as likely to have at least one additional victim when they use a firearm compared to homicide situations involving a non-firearm.”

Building on that paper, Georgetown University psychiatrist Liza Gold writes in the same journal issue that “The large number of cases in which [intimate partner violence] and firearms result in [intimate partner homicide] and mass fatalities, many of which qualify as mass shootings regardless of definition employed, suggests that prioritizing evidence-based interventions to keep firearms away from those who commit [intimate partner violence] can decrease the incidence of [intimate partner homicide] and also decrease related mass shootings.”

Further reading

Federalism, Policy Diffusion, and Gender Equality: Explaining Variation in State Domestic Violence Firearm Laws 1990 – 2017
Wendy Schiller and Kaitlin Sidorsky. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, April 2022.

Intimate Partner Violence and Subsequent Violent Offending Among Handgun Purchasers
Elizabeth Tomsich, et. al. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, December 2021.

Firearms and Protective Orders in Intimate Partner Homicides
Vivian Lyons, et. al. Journal of Family Violence, November 2020.

Guns and Intimate Partner Violence among Adolescents: A Scoping ReviewAnnah Bender, et. al. Journal of Family Violence, August 2020.

State Intimate Partner Violence–Related Firearm Laws and Intimate Partner Homicide Rates in the United States, 1991 to 2015Carolina Díez, et. al. Annals of Internal Medicine, October 2017.

Hold Your Fire: Did the 1996 Federal Gun Control Act Expansion Reduce Domestic Homicides?
Kerri Raissian. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, July 2015.

About The Author