Straw gun purchases illegal, Supreme Court rules

Federal laws that prohibit so-called straw purchases of firearms at gun stores are proper, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision released today.

In the ruling, the court’s four more liberal justices and swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy affirmed laws that prohibit a person purchasing a firearm on behalf of another, even if the second person isn’t disqualified under the law from buying a gun himself. Conservative justices led by Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissent.

The case centered on former police officer Bruce Abramski, who purchased a 9mm Glock 19 pistol for his uncle, Angel Alvarez, who sent Abramski a $400 check for the firearm. Abramski filled out ATF Form 4473, which includes a question that asks “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? 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.” (emphasis in original)

While investigating an unrelated crime, federal agents found a receipt for the firearms purchase that Alvarez sent Abramski for the purchase. Abramski was indicted on charges of violating the Gun Control Act of 1968, and convicted. He challenged the conviction by arguing that federal law should only be concerned with the actual buyer, even if that person is acquiring the firearm for another person and intends to quickly transfer ownership to that third party.

But the court majority disagreed. Here’s why:

“The overarching reason is that Abramski’s reading would undermine — indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal — the gun law’s core provisions,” the decision reads. “As noted earlier, the statute establishes an elaborate system to verify a would-be gun purchaser’s identity and check on his background. It also requires that the information so gathered go into a dealer’s permanent records. The twin goals of this this comprehensive scheme are to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who should not have them, and to assist law enforcement authorities in investigating serious crimes. And no part of that scheme would work if the statute turned a blind eye to straw purchases —if, in other words, the law addressed not the substance of the transaction, but only empty formalities.”

And again: “Yet on Abramski’s view, a person could easily bypass the scheme, purchasing a gun without ever leaving his home by dispatching to a gun store a hired deliveryman,” the ruling adds. “Indeed, if Abramski were right, we see no reason why anyone (and certainly anyone with less-than-pure motives) would put himself through the procedures laid out in [federal gun law]; deliverymen, after all, are not so hard to come by.”

Although Abramski and the dissent argue the person actually buying the firearm is the actual “transferee/buyer,” even if that person is buying the weapon for another, the majority was unpersuaded. “The individual who sends a straw to a guy store to buy a firearm is transacting with the dealer, in every way but the most formal; and that distinguishes such a person from one who buys a gun, or receives a gun as a gift, from a private party,” the ruling reads. (emphasis in original)

Finally, the ruling held that straw purchases frustrate the intent of the law, which is to ensure a proper background check is done at the time of a gun purchase to ensure buyers are not prohibited by law from owning a firearm.

“By concealing that Alvarez was the actual buyer, Abramski prevented the dealer from transacting with Alvarez face-to-face … recording his name, age, and residence … inspecting his photo ID … submitting his identifying information to the background check system … and determining whether he was prohibited from receiving a firearm…,” the ruling reads. “In sum, Abramski thwarted application of essentially all of the firearm law’s requirements. We can hardly think of a misrepresentation any more material to a sale’s legality.”

Ironically, however, Abramski could easily have avoided his arrest, and trouble with the law, had he simply purchased a Glock from a private party, either in person, arranged via the Internet, or at a gun show. While licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks and collect information on would-be purchasers, there is no such requirement for private-party sales. A bill aimed at closing that loophole in this state passed the Nevada Legislature in 2013, but was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The case is Abramski v. United States, No. 12-1493.

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