Pretty Little Liars star Troian Bellisario has teamed up with Everytown and ATTN to release a video to raise awareness about the “boyfriend loophole,” a law that allows boyfriends or girlfriends with a history of domestic violence to purchase a gun.
In 1996, Congress enacted the Lautenberg Amendment, which amended the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 to bar individuals who have been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. But that law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court just last year, only defines a domestic violence misdemeanor as a crime committed by a current or former spouse, a parent, guardian of the victim a person who shares a child with the victim or someone who has lived with or lives with the victim. That means there’s no federal mechanism to prevent boyfriends or girlfriends with a history of domestic violence from owning or possessing a gun. As of September 2015, ten states have passed legislation closing this loophole, but domestic abuse victim advocates say federal legislation will save lives.
While the majority of fatal domestic violence shootings do occur against wives, the next largest group of victims are girlfriends, according to statistics from the Associated Press. Between 2006 and 2014, 2,441 victims out of 6,235 total victims of fatal domestic shootings were in non-marital relationships with their killers.
Bellisario spoke with Motto about why she thinks the “boyfriend loophole” is worth the fight — and why she’s not afraid to speak out on such a politically charged issue.
Motto: Why were you so interested in highlighting this problem?
Bellisario: I was only recently made aware of the ‘boyfriend loophole,’ and I was pretty surprised by it. I’ve worked with Everytown for Gun Safety for a while now on how we can improve state legislation on background checks, and they came to me with ATTN to ask if I’d be interested in raising awareness around it.
But after doing more research, I ultimately wasn’t that surprised. It made sense to me that as women become more independent and form relationships that aren’t solidified in marriage, they wouldn’t be protected under the laws that we have currently.
In this political climate, what do you think the chances are of getting this legislation passed on a federal level? What challenges does your side face?
We’re in an interesting position. There was a 2013 study that showed that 86% of Americans are in favor of strengthening background check for guns in some way. But I think there’s a lot of Americans who are sort of misinformed about this issue. I think what a lot of people aren’t aware of — or are not making themselves aware of — is the “gun show loophole,” which doesn’t require private sellers to do background checks.
Right now, requiring background checks [for all firearm sales] is a really easy thing that we can do — and all agree on. Of course it’s difficult because some people say they have a problem with background checks. But if we can do that for our country, I think we’ll see fewer suicides, fewer shootings and fewer cases of domestic violence that ends with murder. I think in general, a lot of Americans are going to feel safer — on both sides of the issue.
How did you become so passionate about gun control?
My dad’s a gun owner, and he used to take me out to the shooting range. He taught me how to shoot with a rifle, a pistol, and a shotgun. He always made sure that I knew all about gun safety. But for me, no matter how much I shot, I never fully felt comfortable with a gun in my hand. I thought that if I’m going through all of this to educate myself about using guns and I still don’t feel safe, I wonder what’s going on for Americans who aren’t educating themselves.
When I started to see all of these news stories — and it’s hard to avoid them — of mass shootings and I’d hear that the shooter had a history of mental health issues or that they didn’t get their guns legally, I could just see a very clear connection. There’s something we could do as citizens to make it more difficult for guns to land in the hands of dangerous people.
I want all Americans to feel safe. I want Americans who don’t want to carry guns to feel safe. But we can’t seem to get past the anger that we feel on both sides of this issue. We can’t engage in that conversation until we know which laws we can all agree on. To me, it’s a no brainer when I see something like the boyfriend loophole.
If we can protect women who are victims of domestic abuse, it’s our obligation as citizens to do so. We have to ask: “What laws can be put in place to prevent this from happening?”
This isn’t about women encountering dangerous people in dark allies; it’s about women who are victims of their intimate partners.
What are you hoping to accomplish on the issue this year?
I hope that we can get more states to come onboard and close the boyfriend loophole. That would be a huge victory.
But beyond that, I hope that we can have more conversations across the aisle. I hope that we can engage with more gun owners and more people who may not even be aware that this is an issue. I once thought that background checks were required across the board. I hope to see that become a reality soon. If you want to own a gun, you have to go through a background check.
It’s a really tough issue for Americans to talk about. I always go back to a passionate argument, not an argument on legislation where we can all just say: “We want all Americans to be safe, including our children who go to school and our wives and husbands at home. We want them to be safer. How can we work together to all achieve that?”
It is such a politically divisive issue, why speak up?
As a woman, I’m frightened. And I’m empathetic to the women who are in danger. If I can do the smallest thing like make a video to assure that more people are aware of that problem, then I don’t see how I couldn’t speak up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.