The legal definition of “domestic violence” seriously needs to change — especially in gun laws

It’s no secret that our gun laws need to be reformed on a systemic level, but thanks to the National Rifle Association and other lobbies, Congress can never seem to agree on how to make it tougher for dangerous people to get their hands on guns. Thanks to one new study, Congress has more reason than ever to rework how our gun laws affect domestic violence victims. By now, you might have heard of the “boyfriend loophole” in the Lautenberg Amendment, which effectively makes it so that a guy who’s been accused of domestic abuse can often slip through the system and buy a gun, or not have to give his gun up, simply because he’s not married to the woman who accused him. Everything about our gun laws and the way we tend to talk about intimate partner violence is super heteronormative, gendered, and old-fashioned — and it’s putting us all at risk.

According to Everytown For Gun Safety, a non-profit organization that advocates for safe gun laws, guns are the weapon used to kill women most often by an intimate partner. Someone with a history of violence is five times more likely to murder a partner when a gun is in the house. More than half the women killed with guns in 2011 were killed by a partner or family member. So if legislators can’t agree on anything else, surely they can see that people with a history of domestic abuse shouldn’t be allowed to get a gun. Even if they aren’t married to their victim or are stalking them.

But our Violence Against Women Act doesn’t include partners, which puts women in danger. There’s currently a bill that’s been introduced in Senate to update the language about what an “intimate partner” is, but it hasn’t been passed yet.

According to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania and published in the journal Preventive Medicine last week shows that it really should. Susan B. Sorenson, the lead researcher on the study from the university’s School of Social Policy and Practice, found that 80 percent of intimate partner violence occurred between boyfriends and girlfriends. Even scarier? These kinds of “casual” relationships statistically result in more physical violence than marriages do.Sorenson’s study is pretty innovative in that it surveys victims not just about their experience of abuse (like asking, “Have you ever been abused?”) but also asks them to identify the abuser and their relationship to each other. She worked with the Philadelphia Police Department who took notes to this end on the cases they were called out on.

Sorenson said in a statement on Eureka Alerts:

"Current boyfriends or girlfriends were more likely than current spouses to injure their victims. They were more likely to push and shove, to grab, to punch. They were more likely to strangle -- some pretty awful behaviors toward a partner. They were also more likely to use a knife, a bat or another kind of weapon. We were not expecting to find this."

Sorenson admits that there might be some skewing in the results or different reasons for her findings. The sample exclusively included people from Philadelphia, which actually has the lowest rate of married people out of the top 10 largest cities in America. And it’s not like married people aren’t experiencing abuse. They just might be less likely to call the police than a partner with less to “lose,” so to speak, like a girlfriend who doesn’t live with the partner, Sorenson says.

Either way, marriage trends are definitely changing anyway, and our gun laws need to reflect that. “People are less likely to marry, they marry later, they’re less likely to have children and when they get married, they’re more likely to get divorced. Relationships today are more transitory and not necessarily traditional,” Sorenson said in her statement. She added:

"The federal policy focuses on people who are married, live together or have a child in common. We know that abuse occurs in addition to those kinds of relationships. Unfortunately, the federal policy doesn't address that, and the policy is from nearly a generation ago by now. It might be time to revisit."

Even the term “domestic violence” sounds old fashioned, and it’s really not even factual. There’s nothing domestic, for example, about being stalked by a person you went home with once or having your f*ck buddy physically attack you.

We shouldn’t have to get married to have the law on our side.

There are 7.3 million households with unmarried partners according to the U.S. Census Bureau and 37 percent of those have kids in them. And that’s just the intimate partners who live together — but you can be abused by anyone, including the barista you think is stalking you, or the ex boyfriend you still see sometimes. After you report them, they should not be able to buy a gun or keep whatever gun they already have, especially since the days right after a victim takes out a restraining order are the most dangerous, according to The Trace. Since Congress is dragging when it comes to closing the Lautenberg Amendment, states are taking action.

According to The Trace, there are 8 states that have updated their laws to redefine “intimate partner” when it comes to domestic violence, which means that these people won’t be able to pass a background check to get a gun or they have to turn their guns in when a person takes out a protective order against them. Another nine states have introduced bills to do the same. In Washington, for example, they even alert the victim when their abuser attempts to buy a gun. Louisiana added “dating partners” to their law. In Utah, anyone with a restraining order against them can’t buy a gun, no matter what. In North Dakota, a person who doesn’t surrender their gun after a stalking or battery charge will be arrested. In Maryland or Rhode Island, anyone whose been accused of battery is banned from buying a gun.

It’s great that states are protecting victims of abuse from gun violence, but there’s no reason, given the statistics around guns and intimate partner violence, and the national trends in marriage these days, for Congress to sleep on this any longer. Abusers hurting or killing their partners shouldn’t be controversial.