SCOTUS hands setback to gun rights advocates

June 16, 2014

SCOTUSAfter a string of victories at the Supreme Court, gun rights advocates have been handed a setback: earlier today, the Court ruled in Abramski v. United States, which imposed greater restrictions on “straw purchases” of firearms.

A “straw purchase” is when someone buys something – in this case, a gun – on behalf of another.  And although Abramski didn’t directly implicate the Second Amendment, it still serves to limit the availability of firearms.

Here are the facts of the case:

Bruce Abramski offered to buy a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle, Angel Alvarez.  Accepting his nephew’s offer, Alvarez sent Abramski a check for $400 with “Glock 19 handgun” written on the memo line.  Two days later, Abramski went to a federally licensed firearms dealer to make the purchase.  He filled out the required form, falsely checking “Yes” in reply to the question (11.a.) asserting he was the “actual transferee/ buyer.”  According to the form’s definition, one is “not the actual buyer if [he/she is] acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person [(bona fide gifts to third persons are acceptable)].”

Abramski also signed the requisite certification, acknowledging his understanding that a false answer to Question 11.a. is a federal crime.  After Abramski’s name cleared the NICS background check, the dealer sold him the Glock.  Abramski then deposited the $400 check, gave the gun to Alvarez, and got back a receipt (if you’re wondering how Abramski was caught, federal agents found this receipt while executing a search warrant at Abramski’s home after he became a suspect in a different crime).

Abramski was indicted and later convicted for falsely affirming his response to Question 11.a.  His conviction was affirmed on appeal.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and affirmed the appeals court 5-4.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Kagan and joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.  It rejected Abramski’s arguments – namely (1) that a false answer to Question 11.a. is immaterial if the true buyer is legally eligible to purchase a firearm and (2) that a false response to Question 11.a. is never material to a gun sale’s legality, whether or not the actual buyer is eligible to own a gun (because, he argued, Congress has no interest in sales between private parties).

The majority responded to Abramski’s arguments by asserting that the entirety of the federal gun regulatory scheme is dependent on requiring federally licensed gun dealers to ensure that they are not selling firearms to prohibited parties (“a felon, drug addict, or mentally ill person”), and to maintain comprehensive records about the identities of the parties to whom they sell firearms, such that they can assist law enforcement in the investigation of crimes involving firearms.

In short, the majority held that the bulk of federal gun regulations focus on gun dealers, and these regulations are dependent on dealers having accurate information about the parties to whom they sell guns.  Congress’ intent would be undermined if any purchaser would be able to enlist the assistance of a third party to purchase a firearm, thereby concealing the actual buyer’s true identity.

It’s irrelevant to the majority whether the third-party buyer would be legally entitled to purchase a firearm.  To the dissent, however, this is highly relevant, since the regulations, according to the dissent, are focused primarily on keeping firearms away from prohibited parties (mentioned above), and it’s simply “no harm, no foul” if a straw purchaser is used by a party to buy a gun that he or she would otherwise be entitled to purchase.

Beyond the text of the opinion lie more questions waiting to be answered.  Most significantly is how “straw purchaser” would be defined in the wake of the ruling.  Clearly, a purchaser such as Abramski would clearly fall within this definition.

But what about those who are better about keeping their paper trail concealed?  Or those who wait longer than a day or two to transfer the purchased firearm to the actual buyer?  This seems like an issue that will be within the discretion of federal prosecutors to resolve, at least at the outset.

And the full extent that this restricts gun sales remains to be seen.  But it remains significant that the Supreme Court (or, more specifically, Justice Kennedy) does not seem completely committed to unfettered rights to access firearms.