Skip to main site content.
New data shows that more than 1,600 American women were murdered by men in 2013 – and the majority were intimate partners killed by guns

Men who kill

The “boyfriend loophole” in U.S. gun laws is costing women’s lives

By Alli Maloney on September 18, 2015

Many believe that defending the right to bear arms is a hallmark of “American” culture, but a newly-released report illustrates an inconvenient truth: U.S. women being killed by firearms is nearly as much a hallmark as defending gun ownership rights.

An American woman’s chances of experiencing physical violence of some form at the hands of her male partner are more than one in three, and when a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the risk of homicide increases by 500 percent. More than all other weapons combined, guns have been the tool of choice for the majority of the nation’s intimate partner homicides in the past 25 years. In the United States, women are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than women in other high income countries.

Advocates for women have long argued that guns easily turn domestic violence into domestic homicide. The tie between domestic violence rates and the number of women killed by guns may not come as a surprise, but the data is still disturbing. An annual report from the Violence Policy Center (VPC) released this week shows that of the 1,615 women murdered by men in 2013 in single victim/offender incidents, the most commonly used weapon was a gun – handguns being the most popular tool of choice. Also according to the report, When Men Murder Women, 94 percent of those women were killed by someone they knew. Of the women who knew their offenders, 62 percent were the wife or intimate acquaintance of the killer.

Despite rhetoric from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, men who kill are generally not strangers to their female victims, and the fatal attacks are not happening in dark alleyways. Most women were killed in their homes and the “overwhelming” majority of these cases – 85 percent – were not related to another felony crime like rape or robbery.

“Women are dying every day as a result of domestic violence, and our state and federal laws are insufficient in the face of this crisis,” VPC legislative director Kristen Rand said a statement.

Julia Wyman, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, agrees. “Closing gaps in state and federal gun laws will save women’s lives,” she said.

A news conference announcing the 'Domestic Violence Gun Homicide Prevention Act of 2014'. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Lori Jackson’s family announcing the ‘Domestic Violence Gun Homicide Prevention Act of 2014’. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The loopholes that appear between state and federal laws are complicated. According to research compiled by Everytown, in 35 states, state law allows those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes (or those subject to restraining orders) to buy and use guns, even though federal law says otherwise. Meanwhile, the federal definition of “domestic violence” leaves some women, like sisters and girlfriends, unprotected from men who assault them by allowing the assailant to keep and buy guns, even after a conviction.

“[It’s] called the “boyfriend loophole,” Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, explained to Women in the World. “[For] a couple who has never been married – they don’t live together, they don’t have children together – gun prohibition won’t kick in. Even if there’s been a violent assault that does lead to a criminal conviction, [an abuser] will be able to get a gun.” According to Nichols, only one-third of U.S. states have laws that implement a change in language to help bridge this gap.

On the federal level, the law allows those convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses to buy or own guns, and only requires background checks when purchasing a gun through licensed dealers – therefore, private online transactions and gun-show purchases are fair game.

If an abuser does make it to a background check, it will have been up to the states to ensure any past convictions are flagged. Reporting domestic violence charges to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) database used to conduct background checks is the responsibility of the state, and if courts fail to do so, the consequences can be deadly.

“If an abuser goes to buy a gun, their information gets run through these databases that the FBI administers. There’s a big question about whether that information will reflect what’s going on at state level, in the state courts,” Nichols explained.

Another deadly loophole exists when federal law fails to protect women from abusers with temporary protective orders. In forty-one states, many offenders are still able to buy and keep firearms they already own. “The federal law prohibits an abuser from possessing a gun if he’s subject to a protective order, but only if it’s after what’s called a ‘final protective order,’” Nichols said.

For example, in Connecticut (36th on VPC’s state ranking of the rate of women murdered by men), gun owners accused of domestic violence are allowed to keep their weapons until their hearing date. This law failed 32-year-old Lori Jackson, a mother of two who was shot dead by her estranged husband just days after a court issued a temporary protective order, which allowed him to continue bearing arms. He killed her one day before the hearing date that would require he relinquish weapons owned, and pled guilty to the murder this week. A bill written in Lori Jackson’s name, aimed at protecting survivors of domestic violence, was presented to Congress by Senator Richard Blumenthal and other Democratic senators following her death. It has yet to become law.

Even when a woman takes up arms to defend herself from crime, she is still at risk. The VPC report cites a study from the state of California found that “purchasing a handgun provides no protection against homicide among women and is associated with an increase in their risk for intimate partner homicide.” In fact, people with a history of domestic violence are five times more likely to murder an intimate partner when there is a firearm in the house.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)
Governor Nikki Haley has increased penalties for domestic violence and banned gun ownership for “some batterers”. (Uli Seit/The New York Times)

Nichols said it is on Congress to help change the federal definition of domestic violence, but major responsibility falls on the state to report background check information to the FBI. (In the 16 states states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women die from gun violence by intimate partners.) Enforcement of the laws in place is also crucial. “The states need to make sure that local police officers are removing guns from abusers when they lose their eligibility,” she said.

A state-by-state analysis of VPC’s data shows that South Carolina, Alaska and New Mexico boast the highest number of women being murdered by men. In South Carolina, which has been among the annual report’s top ten worst offenders for the past 18 years, every 2.32 women per 100,000 people were murdered by men – twice the national average. (The state’s rampant domestic violence problem has been well-documented by The Post and Courier, whose “Till Death Do Us Part” series won the 2015 Pulitzer Price for Public Service.) In June, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley made steps by increasing penalties for domestic violence and banning gun ownership for “some batterers.” A state task force in August recommended an increase in shelters statewide, better training for 911 operators, and improving documentation of crime scenes.

The release of When Men Murder Women coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which lasts throughout October. To better protect women and honor those who have died at the hands of partner-related gun violence, advocates like Nichols are calling on Congress to expand the definition of “domestic violence” and on state and local lawmakers to fully employ the background check system. Those responsible for the VPC annual report agree.

“State and federal policymakers should take immediate action to help protect women from abusers and prevent future tragedies,” Rand said, adding, “this should include ensuring that men with a history of domestic abuse do not have access to guns.”

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter