In the United States today, a man convicted of physically abusing his spouse, ex-spouse, live-in lover, or co-parent does not have the right to own a firearm. A man convicted of assaulting his casual dating partner — or stalking him or her, after they break up — however, can carry on owning as many AR-15s as his heart desires. (The same, of course, holds for abusers of all genders).
Congressional Democrats want to change that. And not without reason. Women in abusive relationships are five times more likely to be murdered by their partner if he (or, in rare cases, she) owns a firearm. About half of all female homicide victims are killed by intimate partners — and about half of intimate partner homicides are committed by casual dating partners. The fact that federal law bars abusive husbands — but not abusive boyfriends — from owning guns has no criminological justification. Thus, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus wants to use Congress’s pending reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as an opportunity to close “the boyfriend loophole,” by adding language that would bar abusive dating partners and stalkers from purchasing firearms.
But the National Rifle Association is rallying to the defense of the little guy (who stalks his ex-girlfriends and stockpiles deadly weapons). As the New York Times reports:
Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the N.R.A., said that for “many of those ‘offenses’ — and I’m using air quotes here — the behavior that would qualify as a stalking offense is often not violent or threatening; it involves no personal contact whatsoever.” She argues that the new provision is “too broad and ripe for abuse.”
“Like if you were sending harassing messages to somebody on Facebook, to somebody you never met or somebody you dated five years ago,” she said, adding, “How it’s written right now, you could be convicted for a misdemeanor stalking offense for a tweet that causes someone emotional distress and then you would be prohibited from owning a firearm.”
This is an improbable claim. According to the Justice Department, stalking is defined as “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.” Overzealous prosecutors certainly exist in the U.S. But the likelihood of a district attorney’s office using a single, emotionally distressing tweet as the basis for a stalking conviction — and winning — seems low, at best.
More critically, the costs of restricting the gun rights of men (or women) who Facebook-harass their partners — but don’t stalk them in the conventional sense of the term — seem considerably lower than those of allowing abusive dating partners to continue carrying firearms. In the first case, people lose the freedom to own a toy (that will drastically increase their risk of dying by suicide). In the latter case, many women will lose their lives.
Nevertheless, the NRA feels compelled to fight for the right of creepy “reply guys” to own deadly weapons. The gun lobby currently sees itself as besieged, and wishes to make a show of strength by defeating the “boyfriend loophole” in the Senate. Whether a Republican Party that’s already hemorrhaging support among female voters will rally to the cause of “stalkers’ rights” is unclear. Last week, the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “red flag laws” — provisions that allow courts to take guns away from individuals who are guilty of nothing save giving a family member or police officer reason to believe they are a threat to themselves or others.
Donald Trump endorsed such laws last year, shortly after the massacre in Parkland, Florida. “Take the firearms first and then go to court,” Trump said during a televised meeting with lawmakers, “because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures. I like taking the guns early.”
Trump may well cave to NRA pressure. But “the government should seize the guns of dangerous individuals – unless said individuals have been convicted of stalking or abusing their girlfriends,” does not seem like a politically optimal position for the president to take.