Closing the Boyfriend Loophole: Stopping Bullets Like the Ones that Killed 13-Year-Old Sandra Parks Is on Us

Queen Anne’s Lace, whose meaning is safety and sanctuary, is captured here by a Karana Rising team member. 2018.

Queen Anne’s Lace, whose meaning is safety and sanctuary, is captured here by a Karana Rising team member. 2018.

Closing the Boyfriend Loophole: Stopping Bullets Like the Ones that Killed 13-Year-Old Sandra Parks Is on Us By Andrea Powell, Advocate * Author * Founder, Karana Rising * Founder, FAIR Girls

For years, I didn’t remember the blood running down my face, the wet sticky feeling on my pink Hello Kitty t-shirt, or the look of horror on my friend’s face as I sat utterly still and waited on my mom to come take me to the hospital in my small Texas town.   I didn’t remember until 15-year-old honors student Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead in front of her high school friends in South Side Chicago in 2013. Then, it all came rushing back, the way suppressed memories often do. We were 9 years old when her older brother shot me in the head for refusing to “get out of his room.” I was lucky. The bullet did not get past my skull and the stiches only left a small scar that is barely visible today.  The shooter, not knowing the gun in his room was loaded, did not aim to kill. Still, every time I hear of yet another senseless death of a child by gun violence, I can see that blood.  I see it now as I grieve the loss of Sandra Parks, a 13-year-old student and aspiring journalist, who was relaxing in her home after school when a stray bullet burst through and killed her. 

In Sandra’s now darkly prophetical award-winning essay on gun violence, she asserts we are not living up to the dream laid forth by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of freedom for all.  She was right, but her warning did nothing to save her life. Across this country women and girls are dying because we refuse to take guns out of the hands of their known abusers. The deep roots of misogyny have wrapped themselves around the issue of gun violence and another young girl will never rise up to be the adult she was meant to be. 

The shooter, Issac Barnes, is a convicted felon who earlier that evening waved the same AK-47 handgun in his ex-girlfriend’s face threatening to kill her.  Sandra Parks was effectively collateral damage in the wake of his violent rage. While he did not obtain this gun legally, many male abusers do simply because their victims were not married to them. This is unacceptable if we are to take violence against women and misogyny seriously. 

The 1997 Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, often called "the Lautenberg Amendment", intended to prohibit individuals convicted of misdemeanor (and later felony) domestic violence or who was under a restraining order for domestic abuse from owning or being sold a firearm.  Almost twenty years later in 2016, 1,809 women were murdered by men whose top weapon was a gun. Women and girls of color, such as 16 year old Taiyania Thompson (murdered by her 18 year old boyfriend in Washington, D.C.) are twice as likely to murdered by their partners than white women.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 54% of mass shootings were related to domestic violence or family violence.  Clearly, existing laws intended to protect women, are eighty percent of those murdered by an intimate partner using a firearm,  are actually failing many women.  So, here is where we go wrong. Current federal gun violence laws still allows stalkers and domestic abusers to buy and possess guns if they were not married to their victims.  This is known as the “boyfriend loophole” and it is even more deadly  now that ever increasing numbers of women are unmarried by the age of 40, the age by which most murders of women by guns have taken place.

Essentially, despite the known correlation between domestic abuse and mass shootings, unmarried women and girls are left out in the cold by gun violence prevention laws that seemingly prioritize the “right” of the abuser to own a gun over the safety of women and girls.  The deadly combination of men being taught that owning a gun is “manly”, coupled with our society’s seeming himpathy (a term coined by Kate Manne, a Cornell philosopher and author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny) for male perpetrators of violence against women, is essentially leaving guns in the hands of known violent offenders.

Robert Spitzer, author of  The Politics of Gun Control, asserts that single domestic violence incidences often lead to mass shootings such as the 2018 “yoga studio massacre”, where shooter Scott Beierle had a history of misogynistic videos and charges of battery in the cases of two women. This is also true for the Texas school shooting where teen victim Shana Fisher had dealt for months with the killer’s unwanted advances and threats against her.  When she dared to stand up for herself, the shooter’s misogynistic views kicked into gear. The simple act of saying no led to her death and nine others.

One can reasonably see the link between the threats of violence and anger Issac Barnes has toward his ex-girlfriend led toward his later using the gun he illegally had in his possession to shoot the random bullets that killed the young journalist and advocate, Sandra Parks.

Furthermore, enforcing the current laws protecting survivors of abuse is hardly working. Despite the knowledge that there is a fivefold risk increase when the abuser has access to a firearm, yet many judges continue to fail to enforce in the enforceable gun violence prevention legislation. In a 2017 report on enforcement of the current gun violence laws, Montgomery County, Maryland a full ninety-nine percent of domestic abusers in Maryland court were not informed that they must forfeit their current firearms.We must reform the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act to protect people in dating relationships by adding the words “dating partners” to the existing provision on domestic violence. This includes ensuring that any currently owned guns are also removed from their possession.

On July 12, 2017 Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (MI-12) and U.S. Congressman Dan Donovan (NY-11) introduced the yet to be passed legislative fix to the “boyfriend loophole” in the form of the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act that would effectively ensure that all abusers, regardless of their marital status to their victim(s), would no longer be about to have access to guns.  Shortly following, Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.   However, these bills have yet to be passed.  The bottom line, as outlined in this Everytown for Gun Safety Factsheet, is that Congress should close the “girlfriend loophole” by passing the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act / Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act (S. 1539 / H.R. 3207). Doing so will prevent the future murders of women victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.  It could also save the lives of countless more bystanders and children like Sandra Parks.

I have had the chance to chase my dreams, found two nonprofits serving young women survivors of exploitation and human trafficking, and travel the world. The bullet that hit me didn’t end my life at the age of 9. It is such a preventable shame that 13-year-old Sandra could not have had the chance to do the same.  I wish my luck had been hers, too.