LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The Senate is fast-tracking a bipartisan package that would pass a narrow set of measures aimed at stemming gun violence. One of the things the bill would do is close something called the boyfriend loophole. It's an exception in the current federal law that bars domestic abusers from having firearms, but the law only applies to people who are married, living together, or have a child together. Our co-host, A Martinez, talked to April Zeoli, a professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University, about what the boyfriend loophole really means.
APRIL ZEOLI: So if you are dating someone and you haven't lived together, you don't have a child with them, the firearm restrictions that would otherwise be in place don't apply to that dating partner, even though they could be just as violent as someone you married.
A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: And even though you may be in a relationship, that still wouldn't apply unless there's the history there, as you mentioned - marriage, living with someone, or having a child.
ZEOLI: Yeah. It doesn't take into account the reality of the situation right now, which is that we spend a lot more time dating than we used to. Average age at marriage is in the late 20s for women and the early 30s for men. And because we spend all this time dating, it doesn't mean that violence doesn't happen. It still happens, but the dating partners right now aren't covered by the federal restriction.
MARTINEZ: And has this definition - intimate partner, romantic partner, dating relationship - has that been a sticking point with this over the years?
ZEOLI: It has. These federal laws came into being in the mid 1990s, and various incarnations of the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization bills have included closing the boyfriend loophole, but it has ended up being dropped because it is such a sticking point.
MARTINEZ: Why do you think it's taken this long to kind of get with the times? You know, it's 2022. And relationships, much like a lot of other things, have evolved, and we need to keep up with what they mean and how the law applies.
ZEOLI: I think that there has always been a fear that women will make things up - that women will try to take revenge on their, you know, dating partners through lying about abuse and trying to get these firearm restrictions on them. And that fear is unfounded. In fact, most people who experience abuse - or I should say a large proportion of people who experience abuse never report it to the courts or law enforcement.
MARTINEZ: So closing it - what kind of a difference would that make?
ZEOLI: It would place many more people who are a danger to their intimate partners and their families under a firearm restriction so they would not be able to purchase or possess a firearm if they are convicted of domestic violence against that person.
MARTINEZ: Yeah. Now, you know, people convicted who get their gun rights taken away can get them back if they keep their record clean for five years. How much sense does that make here?
ZEOLI: I would be interested to know what the logic behind that is because, again, 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, but the spouses will have this lifetime firearm restriction, and the dating partners will have this five-year firearm restriction. And I don't know the logic behind that disparity. Certainly, it isn't informed by research, but there may be some other logic I am unaware of.
MARTINEZ: For some, it'd be easy to say, OK, well, it's absolutely not enough. But is it, at this point, better than nothing, considering the world we live in right now?
ZEOLI: The federal legislation?
ZEOLI: Absolutely. The bill that the Senate has put out is absolutely a step in the right direction. It would, importantly, close this boyfriend loophole for domestic violence misdemeanor convictions. It would provide money to states for implementation of extremist protection order or red flag laws, and it does many other things besides. 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.
Positive change can be made. It doesn't have to be made, but at least we're not going backwards or staying still. The difficulty as a researcher is seeing things that, you know, research really does suggest save lives - seeing those things not being implemented, like closing the boyfriend loophole. But we live in the world we live in, and people in states will make those decisions based on whatever reasons they feel are the most valid.
MARTINEZ: That's April Zeoli, professor of criminal justice and public health at Michigan State University. Professor, thanks.
ZEOLI: Thank you.
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