NRA fights Dingell measure to stop domestic abusers from getting guns

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, speaks about her efforts with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to close the ‘boyfriend’ loophole at the U.S. Capitol on April 3, 2019.

Washington — The National Rifle Association is opposing reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act this week over a gun-reform provision by Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell that the NRA says "politicized" an otherwise noncontroversial bill.

Dingell’s measure aims to close the so-called "boyfriend" loophole by amending federal law to include convicted abusers of current or former dating partners among those prohibited from purchasing or owning firearms.

Those convicted of domestic abuse currently can lose their weapons only if their victim is their current or former spouse, or they have a child with the victim.  

Dingell's provision also would prohibit firearm ownership by people convicted of misdemeanor stalking.

"What we're trying to do it close a loophole. Keep women safe," said Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat.

"It's not naming anybody who is innocent. If somebody can't get access to a gun, it's because they were convicted of stalking or abuse." 

The NRA is urging lawmakers to oppose the bill, which is set for a Thursday vote in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.

It argues there are no “loopholes” for domestic violence or stalking, and that the legal system has sufficient tools to prohibit dangerous individuals from possessing firearms.

The group says it had not previously gotten involved in the debate over the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994, because it didn't contain firearm provisions. 

The NRA says "former dating partners" is a subjective term that could be abused. Some misdemeanor stalking offenses don't include violent or threatening behavior or even personal contact, it says. 

"Anti-gun" politicians and the gun-control lobby added the firearm provisions to intentionally politicize the bill “as a smokescreen to push their gun-control agenda,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said.

"The NRA opposes domestic violence and all violent crime, and spends millions of dollars teaching countless Americans how not to be a victim and how to safely use firearms for self-defense," Baker said in a statement.

"It’s appalling that the gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians are trivializing the serious issue of domestic violence."

The NRA contends that the gun-control lobby added the provision as a “poison pill," so Democrats can use the issue in campaigns to portray those who vote against it as favoring domestic violence. 

Dingell, who last year co-founded the bipartisan Working Group to End Domestic Violence, said she doesn't view the measure as "poisoning" the vote. 

"Why is it a poison pill? When you're in a domestic violence situation, the presence of the gun makes it five times more likely — 500 percent more likely — that someone will be killed," Dingell said, referring to data from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 

"If we are doing a Violence Against Women Act and we are trying to save lives, why would you not close a simple loophole?"

She first introduced her bill as a freshman lawmaker in 2015 and pushed to incorporate it into the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which expired earlier this year and helps victims of domestic, dating and sexual violence. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, has sponsored a companion to Dingell's Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act in the Senate in recent sessions of Congress.

Asked about the bill's prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate, Klobuchar said she's had GOP senators tell her in the past that they would not put their names on her bill but would vote for it. 

"That's who we're going to be focusing on," said Klobuchar, who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, speaks about her efforts with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to close the ‘boyfriend’ loophole at the U.S. Capitol on April 3, 2019.

Supporters highlighted crime data to make their case.

More than half of all female homicide victims are killed by a current or former "intimate partner," according to a 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that defined "intimate partner" as a current or former spouse or boyfriend.

"Women are as likely to be killed by dating partners than by spouses," said Debbie Weir of the group Every Town for Gun Safety. 

Also, 76 percent of women killed by an intimate partner experienced stalking in the year prior to the murder, according to a 1999 study.

"We're not trying to take the guns away," Dingell said of herself and Klobuchar. "We both believe and respect the Second Amendment." 

Gun reform is among the few issues on which she disagreed with her late husband, Rep. John Dingell Jr., who died in February at age 92. John Dingell, whose seat Debbie won in 2014, used to sit on the NRA board.

She has pushed for stricter firearm restrictions for domestic abusers in part because the issue is personal. 

She tells the story of living with her father, who was mentally ill, and a terrifying night as an eighth grader when he wielded a gun and threatened to shoot her mother.

Dingell has said she intervened and tried to grab the weapon, then locked herself and her siblings in a bedroom to try to hide.

"I was sure I was going to die that night," she said. "I know that fear. I know that terror, and I just want to save another family from going through that."