Supreme Court Upholds 'Straw Purchaser' Law Against NRA-Backed Challenge

Federal background check laws can prohibit an individual from buying a gun for someone else as a "straw" purchaser, even if both people are legally able to own firearms, according to a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling out on Monday. 

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Federal background check laws can prohibit an individual from buying a gun for someone else as a "straw" purchaser, even if both people are legally able to own firearms, according to a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling out on Monday. The case, Abramski v. the United States, concerned the conviction of a former police officer who purchased a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle, despite telling the seller that he was the "actual transferee/buyer" for the weapon, and not purchasing on behalf of another.

Bruce Abramski purchased the Glock on behalf of his uncle because he believed that, as a former police officer, he could get a discount on the firearm. The handgun was not a gift; his uncle later sent Abramski a check for $400 for the weapon. While purchasing the firearm, Abramski answered "Yes" to what is known as Question 11.a, which reads:

Question 11.a. Actual Transferee/Buyer: For purposes of this form, you are the actual transferee/buyer if you are purchasing the firearm for yourself or otherwise acquiring the firearm for yourself . . . .You are also the actual transferee/buyer if you are legitimately purchasing the firearm as a gift for a third party. ACTUAL TRANSFEREE/BUYER EXAMPLES: Mr. Smith asks Mr. Jones to purchase a firearm for Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith gives Mr. Jones the money for the firearm. Mr. Jones is NOT THE ACTUAL TRANSFEREE/BUYER of the firearm and must answer “NO” to question 11.a.” 

Except that was not true, in his case. For falsely answering "Yes" to that question, Abramski was convicted of making false statement “with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale." He challenged the ruling by arguing that his answer to the question was not material because his uncle is legally eligible to purchase a firearm himself, and the law under which he was convicted was only intended to prevent guns from getting into the hands of felons.

This argument led to a friend of the court brief from the NRA, who supported Abramski's challenge to his conviction. In their brief, the NRA claimed that Congress's gun regulations are only intended "to prevent individuals from purchasing firearms on behalf of a prohibited person," and that Question 11.a exceeds the intent of lawmakers by preventing the transfer of guns between two legally-entitled individuals. The Supreme Court, siding with the Obama Administration and gun control groups, disagreed. Here's what Justice Elena Kagan said in her decision: 

The overarching reason is that Abramski’s reading would undermine—indeed, for all important purposes,would virtually repeal—the gun law’s core provisions. 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 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 a transaction, but only empty formalities

Kagan added that "the individual who sends a straw to a gun 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." Kagan's opinion was joined by Justices Sotomayor, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer; Justice Scalia penned the dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously decided to allow the Susan B. Anthony List to challenge an Ohio law banning some false statements made during a political campaign. The ruling, however, does not determine whether the law itself does or does not violate the First Amendment, but merely allows the case to go forward in the lower courts. The anti-abortion group had planned on putting up billboards during the 2010 midterms claiming that Rep. Steve Driehaus "voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion." Driehaus complained to the state's elections commission about the specific ad, eventually prompting the organization to challenge the law itself in court, as NBC News explained.
Here's the full ruling for Abramski v. the United States: 
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.