In the new gun law, a quiet breakthrough for victims of abuse

By FARNOUSH AMIRI
Associated press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nikiesha Thomas was on her way to work one day when she told her sister she was considering getting involved in domestic violence prevention.

The idea got Keeda Simpson thinking. Her younger sister had never mentioned anything like it before, and she was talking about it in a phone call just days after she filed a protective order against her ex-boyfriend.

It was their last conversation.

Less than an hour later, Thomas’ ex-boyfriend approached his parked car in a southeast neighborhood of the nation’s capital and fired through the passenger window, killing the 33-year-old woman. year.

It’s cases like his, where warning signs and legal documents weren’t enough to save a life, that lawmakers had in mind this summer when crafting the first major bipartisan law on Gun violence in decades.

The measure signed by President Joe Biden in June was part of a response to a series of heartbreaking shootings over the summer, including the killing of 19 children in a elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

The package included tougher background checks for younger gun buyers and help for states to put in place ‘red flag’ laws that make it easier for authorities to take guns from people deemed dangerous. .

The bill also contained a proposal that would make it harder for a convicted domestic abuser to obtain firearms even when the abuser is not married or does not have children with the victim.

After nearly a decade in the making, lawmakers’ move to close the “boyfriend loophole” has received far less attention than other aspects of the legislation. But advocates and lawmakers hope the provision will save lives and become an important part of the law’s legacy.

“We have so many women killed — one every 14 hours, of domestic partners with guns in this country,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a longtime proponent of the proposal, said before the announcement. adoption of the bill in June. “Unfortunately, half of them involve romantic partners, people who aren’t married to someone, but have a romantic relationship with them in some way.”

Federal law has long prohibited people convicted of domestic violence or subject to a domestic violence restraining order from being able to purchase a firearm. But this restriction only applied to someone married to the victim, living with the victim or having a child with the victim. As a result, he missed a whole group of abusers – current and former boyfriends or intimate partners – sometimes with fatal consequences.

At least 19 states and the District of Columbia have taken action on the matter, according to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. Klobuchar and domestic violence advocates have worked for years to do the same at the federal level, with little success.

The struggle to define a boyfriend in law remained difficult until the end. Negotiations in Congress nearly broke down over the provision. The same thing happened in March when a similar bipartisan effort to reauthorize a 1990s law that extended protections to victims of domestic and sexual violence passed only after Democratic lawmakers removed loophole provision to secure Republican support.

“That was the toughest issue in our negotiations,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the guns package’s top negotiators, said of the proposed loophole. “The biggest discussion that took us a long time at the end was about how to get your rights back after being banned.”

Murphy and other Democratic negotiators successfully persuaded Republicans by including a narrow pathway to restore access to firearms for first-time offenders after five years, only if they are not convicted of another misdemeanor for violent crime. For married couples and those who have had a child together, the gun ban is permanent.

For some supporters, more changes are still needed. The legislation only partially closes the loophole, as dating partners subject to a domestic violence restraining order, as in Thomas’s case, can still purchase and retain access to firearms.

“It will definitely save lives. But also to be clear, this is a partial closure of the so-called boyfriend loophole. There’s still a lot of work to do,” Jennifer Becker, legal director and senior counsel for Legal Momentum, a legal advocacy and education fund for women, told The Associated Press.

Federal crime data for 2020 showed that of all intimate partner murder victims — including divorced and same-sex couples — girlfriends made up 37%, while wives made up 34%. Only 13% of the victims were boyfriends and 7% were husbands.

In 2018, a group of researchers that looked at intimate partner homicides in 45 states from 1980 to 2013 found that when gun bans tied to domestic distancing orders included people who were dating, deaths increased. dropped by 13%.

“It suggests that when you cast that net wider, by covering boyfriends, you can cover people who are more dangerous and potentially save more lives,” said April Zeoli, a researcher at the University of Michigan who was part of of this study. the PA.

Thomas’ family hopes the changes to the law will save lives and ensure their daughter’s death is not in vain. They say Thomas was doing everything she could to protect herself when she left her years-long relationship with Antoine Oliver, 36, at the end of September 2021.

It was only after her death in October that her family members discovered that the protective order Thomas had filed three days earlier, detailing how his former partner had access to firearms and that she did not feel safe, had never been served. Sheriff’s deputies in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where Thomas and Oliver lived, had tried to reach him by phone.

When law enforcement finally reached Oliver, he told them he would come to accept service of the court order the next day. Instead, authorities say, he killed Thomas that day before shooting himself.

“Some days I sit down and go over the document she filed in court a few days before and I just think, what else could she have done to protect herself?” says Nadine Thomas, his mother. Gilbert Thomas, her father, said his daughter did everything she was supposed to do, but it was the system that let her down.

“She feared for her life and what did the police do? They called him and arranged for him to pick up the order,” he said. “There was no urgency about it.”

But now the family is preparing for the anniversary of Thomas’ murder. The weight of grief is heavy, especially for his 11-year-old daughter, Kylei, whom Thomas had from a relationship before meeting Oliver.

In the months leading up to her death, Thomas had planned to buy a house for her and her daughter. She was saving from her job at the office of the DC State Superintendent of Education, where she was assigned to an intervention program to help some of the district’s toughest students.

“We were really starting to map out some things and it just got taken away,” said her sister, Keeda Simpson. “One of the last things we talked about was her desire to evoke change for other women.

“I will do whatever it takes – even if it’s a small thing – to help someone else who is in their situation, not to lose their life,” she added.

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Associated Press writer Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.

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