Nikiesha Thomas was on her way to work one day when she told her sister that she was thinking about getting involved in domestic violence prevention.
The idea stopped Keeda Simpson. Her younger sister had never mentioned anything like this, and she brought it up in a phone call just days after she filed for a protection order against her ex-boyfriend.
It was their last conversation.
Less than an hour later, Thomas’ ex-boyfriend walked over to her parked car in a southeastern neighborhood of the nation’s capital and shot through her passenger window, killing the 33-year-old.
It’s cases like hers, where warning signs and legal paperwork weren’t enough to save a life, that lawmakers had in mind this summer when drafting the first major bipartisan gun violence law in decades.
The measure, signed by President Joe Biden in June, was part of a response to a harrowing spate of shootings over the summer, including the killing of 19 children at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
The package included stricter background checks for recent gun buyers and help for states to introduce “red flag” laws that make it easier for authorities to confiscate guns from those deemed dangerous.
The bill also included a proposal that will make it more difficult for a convicted domestic abuser to obtain firearms, even if the abuser is not married to the victim or does not have a child.
It took nearly a decade to prepare, and the lawmakers’ move to close the “boyfriend loophole” received far less attention than other aspects of the legislation. But proponents and lawmakers hope this provision will save lives and become an important part of the law’s legacy.
“We’ve killed so many women — one every 14 hours from domestic partners with guns in this country,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a longtime supporter of the proposal, ahead of the bill’s passage in June. “Unfortunately, half of those are dating partners, people who aren’t married to anyone but are in some way romantically involved with them.”
Federal law has long prohibited individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence or who are under a domestic violence restraining order from purchasing a gun. However, this restriction only applied to a person who is married to the victim, cohabits with the victim, or has a child with the victim. As a result, a whole group of perpetrators – current and former friends or intimate partners – missed out, with sometimes fatal consequences.
According to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, at least 19 states and the District of Columbia have taken action on the matter. Klobuchar and domestic violence advocates have worked for years to do the same thing at the federal level, with little success.
The struggle over the definition of a friend in law remained difficult to the end. The negotiations in Congress almost failed because of the provision. The same happened in March, when a similar bipartisan attempt to reauthorize a 1990s law that expanded protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence passed only after Democratic lawmakers removed the loophole provision to ensure Republican support.
“That was the most difficult issue in our negotiations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an arms package negotiator, of the loophole proposal. “The biggest discussion that ended up consuming us was how to get your rights back after a ban.”
Murphy and other Democratic negotiators were able to persuade Republicans by including a narrow path to restoring access to firearms for first-time offenders after five years, only if they are not convicted of another violent crime. For married couples and those who have had a child together, the gun ban applies permanently.
More changes are needed for some proponents. The legislation only partially closes the loophole because dating partners who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order, as in the case of Thomas, are still able to purchase and maintain access to firearms.
“It will definitely save lives. But to be clear, this is a partial closure of what is known as the boyfriend loophole. There’s still work to be done,” Jennifer Becker, general counsel and senior attorney for Legal Momentum, a legal protection and education fund for women, told The Associated Press.
Federal crime data for 2020 showed that of all intimate partner homicide victims — including divorced and same-sex couples — girlfriends made up 37%, while wives made up 34%. Only 13% of the victims were friends and 7% were husbands.
In 2018, a group of researchers looking at intimate partner homicides in 45 states from 1980 to 2013 found that deaths fell by 13% when gun bans associated with domestic restraining orders also included people who were dating .
“It suggests that if you cast that broader net by covering friends, you’ll be able to cover more dangerous people and potentially save more lives,” said April Zeoli, a University of Michigan researcher who Part of this study was the AP.
Thomas’ family hopes the law changes will save lives and ensure their daughter’s death was not in vain. They say Thomas did everything he could to protect himself when she left her long-term relationship with 36-year-old Antoine Oliver in late September 2021.
It was only after her death in October that her family learned that the protective order Thomas had issued three days earlier, which stated her former partner had access to firearms and she felt unsafe, was never 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 got hold of Oliver, he told them he would come to take service of the court order the next day. Instead, authorities said he killed Thomas that day before fatally shooting himself.
“Some days I just sit there and review the paper she filed with the court a few days ago and just think, what else could she have done to protect herself?” said Nadine Thomas, her 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. “No urgency was placed on it.”
But now the family is preparing for the anniversary of Thomas’ murder. The burden of grief is heavy, especially for her 11-year-old daughter, Kylei, who Thomas had from a relationship before she met Oliver.
In the months leading up to her death, Thomas had made plans to buy a house for her and her daughter. She was saving from her job at the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, where she was assigned to an intervention program to help some of the district’s most disadvantaged students.
“We really started planning some things and it just kind of took away,” said her sister, Keeda Simpson. “One of the last things we spoke about was her desire to create change in other women.
“I will do whatever it takes – even a small thing – to help someone else who is in their situation to not lose their life,” she added.
Associated Press writer Susan Haigh of Hartford, Connecticut contributed to this report.