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Behind the decades-long fight to close the 'boyfriend loophole'

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., center, holds a news conference to announce a bipartisan update to the Violence Against Women Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. He is joined by, from left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., center, holds a news conference to announce a bipartisan update to the Violence Against Women Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. He is joined by, from left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233), or visit https://www.thehotline.org. Find more information on the ‘boyfriend loophole’ from the Giffords Law Center here.

A convicted domestic abuser, or anyone who has a personal protective order issued against them, can’t buy or possess a gun. That’s federal law.

Except, there’s a loophole. If the abuser is the victim’s boyfriend, he’s free to own firearms.

“We should be paying attention to what he did as opposed to how long he’s known her or whether he was married to her or whether he had a child with her,” says Susan Sorenson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s the so-called boyfriend loophole. Advocates are trying to close it.

“This is about saving lives,” domestic violence policy advocate Rob Valente says. “This is about a real statistical likelihood of someone being killed by an intimate partner. This is not a gun grab. And if we can’t get ourselves together as a society to do that. I don’t even know what to say.”

Today, On Point: The story behind the decades old fight to close “boyfriend loophole.”


Rob Valente, domestic violence policy advocate for over 30 years. (@robvalentedvpa)

Susan Sorenson, professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research includes violence against women as a public health issue and firearms as a consumer product. Author of New data on intimate partner violence and intimate relationships and Nonfatal Gun Use in Intimate Partner Violence.

Also Featured

Pam Reilly, the mother of Rosemarie Reilly, who was fatally shot by her ex-boyfriend.

David Keck, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms at the Battered Women’s Justice Project.

Kira, a domestic violence survivor.

Highlights From The Show’s Open

CHAKRABARTI: Last month, President Joe Biden signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The act has always been important to him. As Senator, Biden helped write the original legislation in 1990. Here he is in a December hearing that year.

[Archival Tape]: Thirty percent of all the women who seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms for any reason are there because they’re the victims of wife-beating. And most tragically, every week between now and Christmas, about 30 women will be killed by their spouses. So the crisis of domestic violence is taken to its worst extreme.

CHAKRABARTI: The Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994. It requires reauthorization every five years, most recently in 2018. But that time around, reauthorization wasn’t a simple, pro-forma vote. It took years of intense lobbying and protracted debate all the way until last month, when the reauthorization finally made it to Biden’s presidential desk.

[Archival Tape]: The idea that this took five years to reauthorize, it drove me crazy the rationale for why we weren’t going — anyway, I don’t want to get it.

CHAKRABARTI: Biden doesn’t want to get into it because it has to do with guns.

This is the story of the long, imperfect process of lawmaking and how imperfect presumptions once baked into the law of the land are often impossible to pry out.

[Archival Tape]: Today, we began to disarm the criminals and the careless and the insane.

CHAKRABARTI: On October 22, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act into law. But even as he put his signature on the act, Johnson lamented that the law did not include a national gun registry, an idea blocked by the NRA.

[Archival Tape]: We must continue to work for the day when Americans can get the full protection, the kind of protection that most civilized nations have long ago adopted.

CHAKRABARTI: However, there was something interesting tucked into the ’68 Gun Control Act, a rule stating that anyone convicted of felony domestic violence could not own a gun. But for many advocates, that bar was too high. Almost 30 years passed before Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, introduced an amendment that lowered the threshold. It would prohibit gun ownership after a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction or if a personal protection order had been issued against the abuser. Even that amendment faced an uphill battle. Here’s Frank Lautenberg on the Senate floor September 26, 1996.

[Archival Tape]: Last night, I learned something about this place that shocks me — I’m here now 14 years — that even a mandate voted 97-to-2 can be dispensed with by a wink of the eye and out of the head and the Rifle Association looking over member’s shoulders.

CHAKRABARTI: Despite the NRA’s lobbying, the Lautenberg amendment did make it into the gun control law in 1996. The Lautenberg amendment defined “intimate partner” as someone who is “current or former spouse of the victim having lived or is living with the victim or has a child with the victim.”

It left out an entire group of intimate partners — convicted abusers who had been dating but never living with the victim. They can still legally own firearms. That is the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”

In 2018, Democrats and survivor advocates saw an opportunity to close the boyfriend loophole. They wanted to do it through the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. As it had done in 1968 and 1996, the National Rifle Association lobbied hard in 2018. Former NRA’s spokeswoman Dana Lash:

[Archival Tape]: When they say that there’s a loophole, there isn’t a loophole. I mean, it’s already codified. … These are the same lawmakers that say they want to empower women, but yet they’re working to diminish due process for men and women and working to disarm us.

CHAKRABARTI: Representative Debbie Dingell, Michigan Democrat, on the House floor there in 2018.

[Archival Tape]: We’re not taking away due process. … All it does is say that if someone has been convicted — convicted — as an intimate partner, that they would not have access to a gun.

CHAKRABARTI: The House passed its version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. With that, boyfriend loophole closed in 2019. Democrats knew it wouldn’t make it through the Senate but sent the House bill there anyway, where it stalled, gathering dust until this year.

Last month, Democrats in the House tried again, and again, the reauthorization was destined to meet a wall of resistance in the Senate. But this time around?

[Archival Tape]: Our bill is a compromise. It doesn’t include everything that Senator Feinstein and I wanted or everything Senator Ernst and Murkowski wanted.

CHAKRABARTI: The provision closing the boyfriend loophole was taken out. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, explained why.

[Archival Tape]: Well, you need 60 votes. And in order to get anywhere near 60 votes, that provision became controversial, and we had to measure the remainder of the bill against that provision. It’s a tough choice.

CHAKRABARTI: The NRA claimed victory, saying in a March 15 statement, “If not for the years-long advocacy campaign by NRA membership and NRA Institute for Legislative Action on Capitol Hill, blocking the expansion of these so-called loopholes could not have been achieved. Members of Congress craft the law. Everyday Americans live it.

Each year, at least 600 women in America are shot and killed by an intimate partner. That’s one woman every 16 hours. About half of the shooters had dated but not married their victims. In Michigan, firearms restrictions are not automatic following the issuance of a temporary personal protection order. It’s left up to a judge to decide. And in one case, the judge chose wrong.

PAM RILEY: We did everything right, but nothing was on our side.

CHAKRABARTI: Pam Riley lives in New Baltimore, Michigan. In high school, her daughter, Rosemarie, was a straight-A student, played softball, was in the marching band and had a boyfriend, Jeremy Kelley. Rosemarie went off to college at Grand Valley State University. Jeremy went to train as a mechanic in Ohio. He graduated in 2015, went to Grand Rapids and moved in with Rosemarie.

RILEY: When they ended up moving in with each other is when Rosemarie realized how controlling he was, and [it] only took one time of him hitting her, and she wanted out. But he won’t let her leave.

CHAKRABARTI: But Rosemarie did it. She told Jeremy she wanted to end the relationship.

RILEY: And I was meeting her at a restaurant in Granville, and she was a half hour late and I called her and called her and she wasn’t answering. And then finally, she gave me a call and said, “I’m on my way. I’m sorry, I’m running late.” When she walked into the restaurant, and I looked at her, her nose was crooked. I could tell she’d been crying. She had red marks on her neck and her throat area. And then she told me that Jeremy had hit her several times, tried choking her, held a pillow over her face and a gun to her head.

Later, a police report was made and Officer Wallace encouraged her to get a police protection order, and Jeremy was served with it. But later, what really threw him over the edge was: there was two felony arrest warrants out for him, and instead of going and getting him and arresting him, they mailed them to him.

CHAKRABARTI: Rosemarie had checked off two important boxes on the personal protection order request form. One: Does the respondent own firearms? She checked “yes.” Two: Has the respondent threatened to harm or kill you with a gun? Rosemarie checked “yes.”

RILEY: I still, until this day, am dumbfounded how anybody on the street could go up and point a gun to someone and say, “I’m going to kill you,” and you’re not arrested for it.

CHAKRABARTI: On October 17, 2016, a judge granted Rosemarie’s personal protection order. But there was a box the judge did not check — the box that would have prohibited Jeremy from having a gun.

RILEY: So, if the judge had done his job and actually checked that box, the police, I think, would have taken it more seriously.

CHAKRABARTI: All Pam knows for sure is that Jeremy did not take the personal protection order seriously.

RILEY: He never stopped. He never stopped. He called her one day like 78 times. And one day he called her. He emailed her I don’t know how many times. He hacked all her accounts. He changed all her passwords. It was bad.

CHAKRABARTI: Jeremy even showed up at Grand Valley State University and pursued Rosemarie across campus. Pam says her daughter was constantly calling the police. Jeremy was never arrested.

On November 5, 2016, the Riley family rented a hotel in Grand Rapids. Pam’s husband, John, was turning 60 and the family wanted to celebrate. They went to dinner and lounged by the pool. Rosemarie had taken a big nursing test earlier that day. So after the family celebration wound down, she decided to go out with a classmate.

RILEY: At about 3:13 in the morning, I woke up. And their room — Shelby and Rose Ray’s room — was right next to ours. And I went to go call her to see if she got in OK, and it went right to voicemail. And something in my body just didn’t feel right. You know, I woke up, I was scared, and [said] “God, John, I wonder if she’s in there.” He goes, “Oh, they’re just sleeping, just let them go.”

CHAKRABARTI: At 8:30 that morning, police informed Pam and John that approximately five hours earlier, around 3:30 a.m., Jeremy showed up at Rosemarie’s friend’s house. Rosemarie had answered the door. Jeremy grabbed her by the hair and dragged her outside. He had a gun. She tried to escape. Jeremy Kelley shot Rosemarie repeatedly and then pulled the trigger on himself.

RILEY: I just couldn’t believe that they were telling me that he killed her. I was in shock. I knew he was going to hurt her if he wasn’t arrested. If there was nothing done, she was in grave danger. That’s why we were there. That’s why I was always there for those last couple of weeks.

What happened to her should never have happened to her. That judge should have checked that box, there’s no doubt in my mind. Her funeral was on her 22nd birthday. That’s the hardest thing. But the nightmare I live with every day. And I promised her when I buried her, that if I could prevent one mom, one dad, one sibling from going through what we go through that she wouldn’t have died in vain.

CHAKRABARTI: Rosemarie Reilly was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy Kelley on November 6, 2016. She was 21. Shortly after her death. Her mother, Pam, found a letter notifying Rosemarie that she’d been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Michigan to study anesthesiology.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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