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Teen Vogue: Debbie Dingell: It's Time to Close the "Boyfriend Loophole" to Help Stop Gun Violence

Teen Vogue

In this op-ed, Representative Debbie Dingell explains why it's time to close the legal loophole that allows some domestic abusers to buy guns.

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, students are demanding real action to prevent gun violence. Their activism is inspiring, and hopefully my fellow legislators will pay close attention. Though the debate has been dominated by adult voices for a long time, teens face this issue at school, on the street, and even in their romantic relationships. Their opinions are crucial to making progress.

While most of us know last month as Black History Month, it was also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Approximately 1.5 million high school students—or one in five female students and one in 10 male students —experience some form of abuse from a dating partner.

Yet, many parents never talk to their children about domestic violence.

Domestic violence is an issue so pervasive that we often think we are powerless to stop it. However, that simply isn’t true. As a member of Congress, I’m currently working to close a loophole in federal law that’s putting survivors of domestic abuse at risk every single day: The dangerous “boyfriend loophole” allows convicted stalkers to buy and possess guns, and allows abusive dating partners to have guns simply because they are not married to their victims. That threatens not just domestic violence survivors themselves, but others as well, since many mass shooters abuse their partners — according to some reports, the Parkland school shooter followed this pattern in his stalking of a classmate.

It’s a big deal for a survivor of domestic violence to involve the legal system and secure a final protective order from a judge. And getting an abuser charged with and convicted of a crime can take months or years of struggle, skepticism from authorities and reliving the trauma of assault. After all that, domestic abusers should be prohibited from having guns, and unable to pass background checks at licensed gun dealers. But in fact, a loophole in the law means that an abuser is only barred from having a gun if he is currently married to, was formerly married to, has a child with, or lives with the victim. So abusive ex-boyfriends or convicted stalkers can not only keep the firearms they may already have, but buy more — and it’s perfectly legal.

Just last month, the University of Pennsylvania published a new Philadelphia-based study that found that more than four in five domestic violence incidents reported to the police involve partners who are dating, not married. That means that most domestic abusers — including most teens — may be slipping through this loophole in my home state of Michigan and across the country. And research shows the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed. With this loophole on the books, it’s no wonder that women in America are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries.

Some may think that gun violence is not a major factor in abuse between teens. Unfortunately, we have all seen tragic stories of teens with unsupervised access to guns — their parents’ guns or even their own. In just the past few months, even beyond the Parkland school shooting, think of the 16-year-old girl whose 17-year-old boyfriend is charged with shooting and killing her parents in Virginia, or the unintentional shooting of two teens when their 12-year-old classmate brought a gun to school. The devastating recent school shootings also underscore how easy it is for kids and teens to get their hands on guns. On top of that, adult domestic abusers often harm other people, not just their current or former partners: Jennifer Gold’s two best friends were shot and killed by another friend’s boyfriend. This issue affects all of us, regardless of gender or age. And Everytown’s analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 shows that 54% of mass shootings were related to domestic or family violence and more than 40% of fatalities in these shootings were those under the age of 18.

I’m working to close this dangerous, nonsensical loophole at the federal level with my legislation, the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act.

You can take action too, by sharing information about the boyfriend loophole on social media and demanding that your state and federal representatives get serious about protecting domestic abuse survivors from deadly gun violence. Even if you’re too young to vote, I have seen the power of young voices raised for change. Your opinion matters because it’s your safety on the line.

The problem is clear, but the solution is, too. This is not hopeless. Together, we can make our country safer for domestic abuse survivors of all ages. I promise to do my part in Congress, and I hope I can count on you to stand up, too.

If you suspect someone you know is experiencing – or perpetrating – dating violence, reach out to an adult you trust for support, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. If you’re not sure what counts as dating violence, Break the Cycle lists the warning signs.

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