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Supreme Court rules against third-party gun purchases

Published time: June 17, 2014 04:05
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

In a ruling that will help federal prosecutors crack down on one of the most common ways of illegally trafficking guns, the US Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling that upheld the ban of ‘straw purchasers’ during gun sales.

Straw purchasers are those who buy guns on behalf of someone else. Congress passed laws against sham buyers in an effort to prevent firearms from getting in the hands of people prohibited from owning guns.

In the original court case, Bruce Abramski, a former Virginia police officer, offered to purchase a handgun for his uncle who lived in Pennsylvania because he thought he could get a police discount, Thinkprogress reported.

While filling out the federally mandated form for purchasing a gun, Abramski said he was the “actual transferee/buyer” of the gun, despite the warning on the form that reads, “Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.”

His uncle, Angel Alvarez, would have been legally able to purchase a gun on his own. Abramski was convicted for knowingly making false statements about the sale of a gun. In his trial, Abramski said that his false purchase was not a crime because Alvarez was not prohibited from buying a gun.

"Congress didn't use terms like 'true buyer' or 'true purchaser' or 'actual buyer' because they are not concerned about the ultimate recipients of firearms or what happens to a gun after it leaves the gun store," Abramski’s lawyer Richard Dietz said in his arguments.

But the Supreme Court found that federal background checks of the actual buyer are an important tool for investigating gun crimes. “We hold that such a misrepresentation is punishable under the statute, whether or not the true buyer could have purchased the gun without the straw,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

"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," Kagan went on to say.

"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," she wrote.

In his writing for the minority, Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed. "The court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner," he said. "Whether or not that is a sensible result, the statutes Congress enacted do not support it."

Scalia also argued that Alvarez was the true purchaser of the gun, not Abramski. "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," he wrote in the dissent.

Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the swing vote of the decision cheered by gun-control advocacy groups.

"This is a very big and very positive decision that will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement.

The closeness of the vote surprised some legal experts. "It surprised me that there were four justices who would go so far as to say federal law does not outlaw straw purchasing," UCLA law professor Adam Winkler told NPR. "That was a pretty significant step toward gutting one of the few viable and effective gun control laws we currently have on the books."

The National Rifle Association, along with 26 states, filed amicus briefs on behalf of Abramski, asserting that the government wrongly interpreted the law and improperly expanded the scope of gun regulations. Nine states and Washington, DC filed papers bolstering the Obama administration.

The NRA has not issued a statement on the high court’s ruling, but Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, spoke out against the decision to NPR. "The government's out of control, and all three branches are united against the people and the Constitution," Pratt said.

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