Supreme Court Tightens Definition of Straw Purchase
The U.S. Supreme Court released their decision [last] week in the case of Abramski v. US, which involved a former police officer, Abramski, who purchased a gun for an uncle in another state. Neither Abramski nor his uncle was prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. In fact, since the uncle lives in a different state, Abramski subsequently transferred the gun to his uncle through a licensed firearms dealer in that state, and the uncle completed all of the necessary paperwork and background check before taking possession. The only reason for Abramski making the original purchase was that he could get the gun at a better price due to his police service. The purchase drew attention while Abramski was being investigated in an unrelated matter. It is likely that the investigators initially raised the issue as a way of generating leverage to motivate Abramski to cooperate in their primary investigation. Whatever the reasons, no charges were filed in that original case, but Abramski’s purchase of a gun for his uncle was prosecuted. The District Court and Appeals Court split on whether Abramski’s purchase violated federal law, and the Supreme Court settled the matter with their 5-4 decision.
The Court split down their standard “liberal” vs. “conservative” line with Justice Kennedy once again playing the role of swing vote.
The core issue of this case is whether Abramski or his uncle was the “actual purchaser” of the firearm at the time of the original sale. The Gun Control Act forbids sales by licensed dealers to “prohibited persons” – those with felony or domestic violence convictions, illegal drug users, illegal aliens, etc., and requires background checks on purchasers. It also requires that certain information about every sale be maintained in the dealer’s records for 20 years, restricts interstate and non-face-to-face transactions, and provides penalties for providing false information material to the acquisition of a firearm. To assist in all of this, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, has promulgated regulations and issued forms for the collection of necessary information – particularly the Form 4473.
Along with identifying information, the 4473 asks if a person purchasing a firearm is buying it for themselves. If they answer “No,” the transaction cannot go forward. There is an explanation on the back that says a person purchasing a firearm as a gift for someone else is the “actual buyer,” but that someone who is purchasing a gun for someone else, at that person’s request, and using that person’s money, must answer “No” to the question.
Of course, the objective of Congress in passing the laws in question was to keep prohibited persons from acquiring firearms from licensed dealers by simply inserting a middleman to make the actual purchase. Abramski contended that since this objective was not thwarted in his purchase for his uncle, the statement that he was the “actual purchaser” was not a lie, and that even if it was, it was not material to the purchase, and therefore not a criminal act.
Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, along with Chief Justice Roberts, agreed with Abramski, pointing out that in plain language, an “actual buyer” is the person who actually stands across the counter from the seller and takes possession of the bought goods. They pointed out that it would not have been illegal for Abramski to have purchased the gun and given it to his uncle or even for him to have purchased the gun with the express intent to turn around and sell it to his uncle. The only technicality which made the transfer questionable was the fact that Abramski’s uncle sent him a check before Abramski made the purchase.
Considering that the intent of the law – preventing prohibited persons from acquiring firearms through use of straw purchasers, and the literal meaning of the words “actual purchaser” as used in the law – were not thwarted, the dissenting justices found that Abramski had not provided materially false information and had not violated the law.
On the prevailing side though, Justice Elena Kagan, along with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kennedy, held that it didn’t matter that all parties involved were legal to purchase and possess the firearm in question, or that this particular transaction did not result in a prohibited person acquiring a gun. They found that Abramski lied in the acquisition of a firearm and should be punished for it.
The Abramski case proves once again that in actual application, the stated reasons for passing gun laws are irrelevant because they inevitably result in prosecution and punishment for people who are not criminals and are not engaging in anything that most people would consider criminal activity.
Many have expressed concern that this ruling will change the long-standing rules regarding gifts and private sales of firearms. While this ruling does not directly address those issues, and nothing will immediately change in that regard, it does whittle away at the principles that prop up those provisions and could be used as a standard in some future case challenging those practices.
The main thing that this case highlights is the razor thin margin of common sense on the Supreme Court, and the critical importance of electing a president and senators who will appoint and confirm only jurists who will abide by the clear meaning of the Constitution and focus on the reasons for laws and how they impact the innocent.
Bad laws make for bad court decisions. If Justice Ginsburg retires, Obama will have one more opportunity to name a justice. Relying on the court is a mistake. Laws must be fixed in Congress.
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