The case of a Virginia man who bought a handgun for his uncle then caught five years probation for his trouble has found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court today.
This case, Abramski v. United States, could turn out to be a landmark decision on how the federal government interprets ‘straw buyers.’ A straw buyer is one who purchases a firearm from an FFL holder for someone else, sometimes a criminal who could not have done so on their own.
The Justice Department rarely prosecutes straw buyer cases. In testimony in front of Congress last June, the head of the ATF related that of 48,321 cases involving straw buyers, the Justice Department prosecuted only 44 of them. A lack of resources was cited as the reason behind such low enforcement.
One of these cases that went to trial was that of Bruce Abramski, Jr.
On Nov. 17, 2009, Abramski, son of a retired New York police Lt., used cash and his expired Roanoke Police force credentials to purchase a Glock 19 at a local police supply shop. Two days prior to that purchase, he had been sent a $400 check from his elderly uncle in Pennsylvania for the gun. Finally, on Nov. 21, after depositing the check, Abramski transferred the gun through a Pennsylvannia FFL holder to his uncle, who was not barred from legally owning it in the state.
Abramski’s uncle had wanted to make sure that everything was legal in the exchange and consulted with no less than three different FFL holders for information before the transfer occurred.
Where Abramski torpedoed himself was when he bought the gun in Virginia and answered ‘Yes’ on ATF Form 4473, the well-known ‘yellow form’ that is filled out with any gun purchase from an FFL holder, to the question of ‘Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on the form? ‘
In a strange twist of fate, Abramski was later considered a suspect in a bank robbery. While he was cleared of involvement and never prosecuted, the FBI searched his Virginia home and found the receipts for the earlier gun exchange on the Glock.
When this information was turned over to the U.S. Attorney, Abramski was charged with two counts of making false statements to the lawfulness of the firearm sale. The government contended that when Abramski answered ‘Yes’ to that particular question on the 4473, he knowingly made a false statement and became a straw purchaser.
At a hearing in the district court, an ATF agent even testified under oath that petitioner’s transfer of the gun to his uncle was lawful. However, the U.S. Attorney did not concur.
In his defense, the Glock buyer’s legal team argued that the ‘Yes’ response to Question 11.a on the ATF Form 4473 was not a material misrepresentation because his uncle was legally eligible to purchase a firearm. The federal court in which this case was tried swatted that notion away, as did an appeals court.
The problem was that Abramski had not only checked ‘Yes’ but that he had received a check from his uncle before he purchased the gun, thus, in the eyes of the U.S. Attorney, making him a straw purchaser.
On the condition that he be allowed to challenge the validity of the claim, Abramski plead guilty to the charges and received five years’ probation.
Now this case has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 49-page brief (pdf), Abramski’s lawyer argues that a gun buyer’s intent to sell a firearm to another lawful buyer in the future is material to the lawfulness of the sale.
The brief even cites past ATF circulars that clearly state, “The Gun Control Act of 1968 does not necessarily prohibit a dealer from making a sale to a person who is actually purchasing the firearm for another person. It makes no difference that the dealer knows that the purchaser will later transfer the firearm to another person, so long as the ultimate recipient is not prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm.”
The case has proved a clarion call for change in the straw purchase definition, with some 27 states filing amicus briefs in their support of those who purchase guns from gun dealers only to turn around and sell them to other law-abiding individuals should not be subject to federal prosecution.
The U.S. Solicitor Generals office, in their own 49-page brief (pdf) contends that the case was properly handled and that Abramski, by receiving money from his uncle before he purchased the gun, and answering the questions on the 4473 in the way he did, broke the law.
Many in the gun community look forward to the court’s ruling in this case for clarification.
From Catherine Mortensen, NRA Spokeswoman, Guns.com received the following statement on the case via email
This is another case of the BATFE attempting to criminalize the legal activity of law-abiding gun owners. In this case, both the buyer and his uncle submitted to and passed the requisite background checks to own the firearm in question. Congress did not criminalize the transfer of firearms between persons who are both legally entitled to purchase the firearm. Rather, Congress’ objective was to prevent individuals from purchasing firearms on behalf of prohibited persons and that is – in fact – what the law provides.
In an statement to Guns.com, Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general counsel offered the following comments on the matter:
Our industry remains committed to cooperating with law enforcement as exemplified by our Don’t Lie for the Other Guy anti-straw purchase dealer education and public awareness campaign aimed at trying to prevent the illegal straw purchase of firearms, a means by which a very small percentage of criminals obtain firearms.
We look forward to the Supreme Court clarifying the law so that federally licensed firearms retailers across America will know whether they can lawfully sell a firearm to a law-abiding citizen who is acting on behalf of another law-abiding citizen.
It is noteworthy that the firearm involved in this case was transferred to the end user after a successful background check. The case also raises important Second Amendment questions about provisions of the Gun Control Act that geographically limit your constitutional right to acquire a handgun to your state of residence.
The Supreme Court’s is expected to render a decision on this case in the not too distant future.