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Supreme Court: Yes, It’s A Crime To Lie When You’re Buying A Gun

Gun Flag

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that someone who misrepresents their intention to transfer a gun that they are purchasing from a federally licensed firearms dealer to another person can be prosecuted under the law notwithstanding the fact that the person to whom the gun is transferred would otherwise be eligible to buy a gun:

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that a federal law banning the “straw” purchase of guns on behalf of others applies to transactions where the person who ends up with the weapon could have legally acquired a firearm.

The opinion by Justice Elena Kagan rejected arguments from gun-rights groups, who had complained of arbitrary gun-purchase prosecutions, saying the outcome was necessary to preserve whatever impact the law had in preventing “felons, drug addicts, and the mentally ill” from obtaining firearms.

Congress sought both “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who should not have them” and to assist police investigating gun crimes, she wrote. “No part of that scheme would work if the statute turned a blind eye to straw purchases,” Justice Kagan said, including provisions requiring licensed gun dealers to clear would-be purchasers through the national instant background-check system.

Andrew Branca, a lawyer who has written extensively on gun laws and the law of self defense, has a detailed summary of the Court’s holding that defies excerpting, but is well worth reading if you want a thorough understanding of the case, and Lyle Denniston provides this summary:

An individual cannot walk into a gun dealer’s shop and buy a gun for someone else by claiming to be the actual buyer, a deeply split Supreme Court ruled on Monday.  A form demanding to know who the actual purchaser is, the majority ruled, has to be answered truthfully, or else the transaction is illegal.

The practical effect of the ruling is likely to be shutting down, or at least cutting back on, an active market in gun-buying by “straw purchasers” — that is, mere stand-ins for the real buyers.  The Court cited data that about half of all federal investigations of illegal gun trafficking involve such purchasers.  “Deliverymen, after all, are not so hard to come by,” the Court majority remarked.

The ruling was limited to an analysis of the scope of a federal criminal law. There was no claim of interference with the right under the Second Amendment to have a gun for personal use.

It makes no difference, the Court majority stressed, that the individual who buys the gun personally or the individual who actually gets the gun after the purchase has a legal right to have a gun.  That does not excuse the crime of lying about who the buyer is at the time of the sale, it said.  The government has to be able to track gun buyers, and truthful forms about buyers are a key to that, according to the ruling.

The Court tied its ruling to the multi-faceted federal program of tracking guns that are used in crimes or guns that wind up in the hands of individuals not allowed to have them — such as convicted felons, the mentally ill, or drug addicts.  The system of gathering data about the true buyers of guns is essential, the opinion said, to a system of background checks designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“No piece of information is more important under federal law ,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority, ”than the identity of a gun’s purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer.” Answering a form that asks about the actual purchase, Kagan added, “is fundamental to the lawfulness of a gun sale.”  A sale cannot even occur unless the true buyer is correctly identified, and is at the counter seeking to buy a weapon, the opinion noted.

(…)

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the dissenters, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Clarence Thomas.  The Scalia opinion argued that the federal background-checking scheme simply does not apply to a gun purchase when both the person at the counter paying for the weapon and the person for whom the gun is being bought are legally eligible to have it.

Scalia is correct that the Federal law question doesn’t explicitly state that a transaction like this is barred. Instead, what it says is that someone who misrepresents their intention to transfer a weapon is breaking the law regardless of whether or not the person to whom they are transferring it to would otherwise be eligible to buy a gun under Federal law. For many years, the BATF essentially chose not to enforce the law in these situation and instead concentrate on those transactions where straw purchases were being made on behalf of people who would be barred form buying a weapon on their own. The reasons for such a choice seems fairly obvious since the entire purpose of the background check system is to prevent such persons from being able to legally purchase a weapon. Several years after the law governing these transactions was passed, though, the BATF changed its policy to include prosecution of cases where straw purchases were being made regardless of whether or not the actual intended owner is a legally eligible purchaser or not. Given that a straw purchase could be used for nefarious purposes even when the intended owner would be able to buy a gun on their own, such as if someone wished to keep their name out of law enforcement records as part of a plot to commit a crime, this doesn’t strike me as an outrageous policy change at all. Moreover, it’s worth noting that, regardless of previous BATF policy, a transaction where someone falsely misrepresents their intention to transfer a weapon to someone else has always been a crime. Abramski’s arguments here were largely without merit and amounted little more than prevarications aimed at disguising the fact that he had, indeed, broken the law.

I suspect that a lay person looking at a case like this would be tempted to ask why there’s even a question that what Abramski did was illegal. The Federal form in question, which has been in use in some form ever since the Gun Control Act of 1968, which established the system of Federally licensed firearms dealers who were required to collect and record certain information about the people that purchase weapons from them. More recent laws, such as the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993, have required federally licensed dealers to clear all transactions through background checks. Quite obviously, that regulator scheme would make no sense whatsoever if it were possible for me to walk into a gun store and purchase a gun under my name knowing all the time that I was merely a straw purchaser for someone else. The fact that the ultimate owner may or may not have been legally entitled to buy the weapons is largely irrelevant.

Also irrelevant is the fact that, as Justice Scalia points out, there are exceptions to the “straw purchase” rules that allow for someone to buy a gun that will ultimately be transferred to someone else, in the form of a gift or a raffle prize for example, to do so without legal liability. That’s not what happened here. Instead, Abramski clearly went about to violate the law. Indeed, in this particular case, it seems as though Abramoski was being particularly stupid in how he went about this transaction, and it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for him.  The police officer’s discount that he was trying to take advantage of here on behalf of his uncle was, at most a couple hundred dollars. His uncle, stupidly, put a note on the memo line of the check he wrote Abramski that specifically stated that it was for the purchase of a gun. In the end, it’s really their own fault that they got caught here.

Here’s the opinion:

Abramski v. United States by Doug Mataconis

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben says:

    Ah, Antonin, how you always fight for strict construction of a law, regardless of its negative consequences. Oh, except for those times when the consequences rankle the right. Then you don’t. I always forget that.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 0

  2. C. Clavin says:

    This is a catastrophic infringement of my 2nd Amendment Rights.
    I told you Obama was coming after my guns.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  3. beth says:

    @C. Clavin: That’s so you won’t put up any resistance when he puts you in a FEMA camp.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  4. mantis says:

    @beth: So he can implement Agenda 21 and give your property to gay Muslim Communists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @beth:
    @mantis:
    Seriously though…I am still waiting to be appointed to a seat on the Death Panel.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  6. beth says:

    @C. Clavin: I would do it for you but I’m late for my monthly Obamacare-mandated abortion.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  7. gVOR08 says:

    I suspect that a lay person looking at a case like this would be tempted to ask why there’s even a question that what Abramski did was illegal.

    As Doug further explains, this does seem like a no-brainer. Except, of course, to Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas; the no brain conservative wing of the Court..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  8. Tillman says:

    Several years after the law governing these transactions was passed, though, the BATF changed its policy to include prosecution of cases where straw purchases were being made regardless of whether or not the actual intended owner is a legally eligible purchaser or not. Given that a straw purchase could be used for nefarious purposes even when the intended owner would be able to buy a gun on their own, such as if someone wished to keep their name out of law enforcement records as part of a plot to commit a crime, this doesn’t strike me as an outrageous policy change at all.

    I suspect that a lay person looking at a case like this would be tempted to ask why there’s even a question that what Abramski did was illegal.

    And yet four justices thought it wasn’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  9. EddieInCA says:

    What’s shocking to me is that four justices voted the other way.

    This should have been 9-0.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @beth:
    That’s OK….the Government will pay you to stay home and not work and raise that kid and give you TV’s and satellite dishes and Cadillacs too!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @C. Clavin:

    This is a catastrophic infringement of my 2nd Amendment Rights.
    I told you Obama was coming after my guns.

    Wait a minute, is that before or after he forces me to get a divorce and to remarry in a Gay wedding ceremony?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  12. CSK says:

    I may be missing something, but why would a person who can legally own a gun (and presumably afford one) need another person to make an illicit purchase for him or her?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. mantis says:

    @CSK:

    In this case, it was to dishonestly get a police discount. Other possible scenarios include one where the true buyer intends to commit a crime but does not want the purchase in his/her name.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  14. CSK says:

    @mantis:

    Thanks. But doesn’t the second scenario implicate the straw buyer in the crime? I buy a gun for you in my name, you knock over a bank, kill a teller, and the gun used to commit the murder gets traced back to me. What’s in it for me?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Tillman says:

    @CSK: The horrendous amounts of money I’m paying you to flee the country/assume a new identity after I hit the bank? A share of the profit, perhaps?

    I don’t know, I’ve never robbed a bank before.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. mantis says:

    @CSK:

    If the cops obtain the gun, yes. The buyer would be implicated. But imagine a crime was committed and police don’t have the weapon. Maybe they have a suspect, but he used a gun bought by a friend, so there is no record of him purchasing a gun recently. If he had bought the gun himself, he’d be much more of a suspect. If the gun were fired and there was a record of him recently purchasing a gun of the same caliber, even more so. If a friend buys it, all of that evidence is obscured. “Sure officer, I own guns, but I don’t own a 9mm (or whatever), which was used in the crime. You’ve got the wrong guy.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @Tillman:
    As far as we know……

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. CSK says:

    @Tillman: @mantis:

    That’s still a lot of trouble to go to when every bad guy (and even non-bad non-guys like me) knows that there are places everywhere that you can buy a virtually untraceable weapon out of the trunk of someone’s car, for less than list price. No need to pay someone to buy it for you from a sporting goods store.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. mantis says:

    @CSK:

    I have no idea where I would personally obtain an illegal weapon, but I do know plenty of places they can be obtained legally. I suspect your average jealous husband or whatever is in the same situation. We don’t all have your underworld connections. I don’t think that the straw purchase for a licensed gun owner situation would often involve “bad guys,” which I read to mean career criminals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. KM says:

    @CSK:

    That’s still a lot of trouble to go to when every bad guy (and even non-bad non-guys like me) knows that there are places everywhere that you can buy a virtually untraceable weapon out of the trunk of someone’s car, for less than list price. No need to pay someone to buy it for you from a sporting goods store.

    People are lazy. People don’t think outside the box. People don’t want to go to “that part of town.” People don’t want to associate themselves with “criminals” while committing an illegal act they don’t feel illegal. They’re not that smart. The government can’t tell me what to do! Full price, to hell with that!! I could go on….

    Or maybe, just maybe, they think they are good guys with guns that have a sneaking suspicion they won’t be good for much longer and need another one. Untraceable. Just in case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK:

    knows that there are places everywhere that you can buy a virtually untraceable weapon out of the trunk of someone’s car, for less than list price.

    Not if that gun is in working order, then you have to pay extra.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    The essence of this case is that a cop used his Police Officer discount (offered to cops for their personal use) to get a gun at a cheaper price for a relative, and both were perfectly entitled to own a gun.

    The intent of this law was to keep people who weren’t allowed to own guns from getting them, and here it’s going after people who were entitled to own guns.

    I’m finding it remarkable how the same people who thought it was just fine for Obama to rewrite the letter of the ObamaCare law by fiat, changing dates and eligibility requirements and whatnot, in clear violation of the letter of the law, and led the cheering for the illegal UnWar in Libya, among other examples, are now all hardcore law-and-order types.

    Exploiting the discount should get him penalized by the seller, such as being banned from using his discount again, and perhaps disciplined by his PD, but criminal prosecution?

    What his lawyer should have said was that he was getting the gun to give to a Mexican drug cartel, or that it was for Brian Williams. That would have gotten him off the hook.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  23. Nikki says:

    I am really curious as to why those four justices would vote the way they did. Are they seriously that much in the service of the gun manufacturers? Because they are the only ones who would benefit if the ruling had gone the way of those four idiots.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Exploiting the discount should get him penalized by the seller, such as being banned from using his discount again, and perhaps disciplined by his PD, but criminal prosecution?

    Yes, you always seem to be against prosecution of crimes when the criminal is someone you sympathize with.

    I’m finding it remarkable how the same people who thought it was just fine for Obama to rewrite the letter of the ObamaCare law by fiat, changing dates and eligibility requirements and whatnot, in clear violation of the letter of the law, and led the cheering for the illegal UnWar in Libya, among other examples, are now all hardcore law-and-order types.

    Putting aside the fact that many would disagree with both of your assertions of illegality of those actions, please explain whom you are referring to and point to their specific positions on those topics as well as evidence of them being “hardcore law-and-order types” now. Or are you just assuming the positions of others, something that causes you to freak out and lob accusations of defamation and libel when it’s done to you.

    And good job once again directing all discussions, no matter the relevance, to your singular obsession, Obama. If you get caught in traffic, do you cry, “how come Obama gets a pass on traffic with his damned motorcade? Who does he think he is?!!!?!?!”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  25. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @mantis: We’re talking gun laws this time. Which is why I also cited Fast & Furious and the David Gregory cases… which you managed to somehow overlook. Gee, I wonder why?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. KM says:

    @Jenos:

    The intent of this law was to keep people who weren’t allowed to own guns from getting them, and here it’s going after people who were entitled to own guns.

    And how do you know that? If person A (legal) buys for person B (legal) but lies on official documentation, how the hell is someone supposed to know what’s what without a proper investigation? It’s a lot to ask for trust in these matters – the point of paperwork is to verify accordance with the law. Do you not think its a problem that someone could be deliberately deceptive on official records? The potential for abuse is enormous on this – it should be be a no-brainier that any intent to defraud on official documentation is illegal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. DrDaveT says:

    At long last, the High Court has explicitly addressed the pressing issue of the right of the people to keep and arm bears.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. mantis says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    We’re talking gun laws this time. Which is why I also cited Fast & Furious and the David Gregory cases… which you managed to somehow overlook.

    Gregory would actually be sort of relevant, but you said Brian Williams. But good job with F&F and checking off several wingnut obsession boxes.

    Anyway, please explain whom you are referring to and point to their specific positions on those topics as well as evidence of them being “hardcore law-and-order types” now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @mantis: Crap, you’re right, I should have double-checked it. It was David Gregory, and thank you for the correction.

    But that doesn’t address my point — why was Gregory not charged with a clear violation of the law? NBC even asked the FBI in advance if it was illegal and was told that it was, so they don’t even get to plead ignorance.

    And you’re probably right about the Fast & Furious reference — it was a bit of a stretch to compare this case to one where the federal government explicitly ordered gun dealers to make illegal sales when they KNEW that the guns would end up in the hands of people who had no legal right to own the guns. Here, the gun would have ended up in the hands of someone who had no legal obstacle to owning it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Grewgills says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    it was a bit of a stretch to compare this case to one where the federal government explicitly ordered gun dealers to make illegal sales when they KNEW that the guns would end up in the hands of people who had no legal right to own the guns.

    Therefor there should be no more sting operations ever

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Grewgills: Therefor there should be no more sting operations ever

    I’d be content if they just restricted the sting operations to ones that actually had a plan that might achieve something, and didn’t coerce cooperation from law-abiding people into helping a “sting” that made any sense whatsoever.

    In case you’ve forgotten, the “sting” in question here had NO plans to trace the guns once they got across the border, NO plans to recover the guns, and NO plans to notify the Mexican government that we were supplying guns to the drug cartels. And gun dealers — whose very livelihood depends upon the good will of the BATFE — were instructed to make sales that they knew damned well were illegal and didn’t want to make.

    Remember, the predecessor operation under Bush implanted tracking devices in the guns and coordinated with the Mexicans — and it still failed. Under Obama, they eliminated both those parts of the plans — and didn’t put in anything else to replace it.

    Is expecting the slightest bit of intelligence from the Obama administration too much to ask?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0