In a split 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with gun control groups and lower courts that a man who bought a gun for his uncle, who was lawfully eligible to own it, performed a straw purchase.
In the case Abramski v. United States, the high court ruled that a straw purchase — buying a gun from a gun store for someone legally prohibited from owning one — to include buying a gun for someone not prohibited from owning one as well.
Although the case was argued in front of the court in January, the decision was handed down Monday with Justice Elena Kagan writing for the narrow majority, which comprises Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and herself.
Regain-era appointee Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, long seen as a swing vote on gun rights cases, joined these four Democratically-appointed justices.
“No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun’s purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer,” Kagan wrote in the 40-page ruling.
The straw purchase
The case roots back to Nov. 17, 2009, when Bruce Abramski, used cash to buy a police discounted Glock 19 at a law enforcement supply shop in Virginia. Two days prior to the purchase, he had been sent a $400 check from his elderly uncle in Pennsylvania for the gun. Finally, on Nov. 21, 2009, after depositing the check, Abramski transferred the gun through a Pennsylvania Federal Firearms License 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 before the transfer occurred.
Where Abramski ran into later trouble was when he bought the gun in Virginia and answered “Yes” on ATF Form 4473, the well-known yellow form that is filled out during any gun sale from an FFL holder, to the question of, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on the form?”
By answering “Yes” to the question and receiving money before the sale, the government contended that Abramski broke the law by knowingly making a false statement and thus becoming a straw purchaser.
In his defense, Abramski’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. 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.
Kagan wrote that were Abramski’s view of the law to prevail, it would “render the required records close to useless” for aiding law enforcement. “Putting true numbskulls to one side, anyone purchasing a gun for criminal purposes would avoid leaving a paper trail by the simple expedient of hiring a straw,” she said.
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.
Mondays’ finding did not come easy to the highest court in the land and four of the nine justices, all Republican-era appointees, formed a minority dissension. These included Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissent to the majority’s decision.
“After Congress passed the [Gun Control] Act in 1968, ATF’s initial position was that the Act did not prohibit the sale of a gun to an eligible buyer acting on behalf of a third party (even an ineligible one),” wrote Scalia.
Scalia contended that, “On the majority’s view, if the bureaucrats responsible for creating Form 4473 decided to ask about the buyer’s favorite color, a false response would be a federal crime.”
Scalia went on to criticize Kagan’s point that Abramski’s uncle was the true purchaser of the gun under federal firearms laws, by arguing, “If I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say that the store ‘sells’ the milk and eggs to me.”
The swing vote
When deciding on the landmark Second Amendment cases Heller v. DC and McDonald v. Chicago, Kennedy lined up with the conservative justices, but this time around, he went against the grain.
There had been speculation earlier this year that the Kennedy wildcard may have kept other gun rights cases from being heard by the high court in recent months.
Abramski’s case had been polarizing for gun rights and gun control groups alike. Twenty-seven states and territories as well as the National Rifle Association submitted amicus briefs supporting Abramski’s view of the law, while nine states, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Washington, D.C., filed papers supporting the Justice Department’s position.
As such, both sides were soon to issue comment.
The gun rights group Gun Owners of America lambasted the ruling on through social media calling it a “lawless decree imposed by liberal judges who are way out of step with the American people — as 75 percent of them agree that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own and sell guns.”
In contrast, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “Once again the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the corporate gun lobby to undermine federal gun laws, reaffirming that sensible laws can have a big impact while being consistent with the Second Amendment.”