In 2009, former police officer Bruce James Abramski, Jr. of Collinsville, Virginia offered to purchase a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle using his police discount. Three days after receiving a check from his uncle for the $400 cost, Abramski purchased the gun at a local gun shop. As part of the purchase, Abramski filled out the required federal form, indicating that he was the buyer of the gun. He then transferred the gun to his uncle in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Sometime later, Abramski was investigated in connection with a bank robbery. During a legal search of his home, police found the receipt for the $400 gun purchase. While no charges were filed in the bank robbery, he was charged with making false statements about the purchase of the gun.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulates firearm dealers’ gun sales. To minimize the chance of those prohibited from purchasing guns (such as felons, drug addicts, or the mentally ill), federal background checks are required. It also requires that the actual buyer appears in person for the transaction. The prohibition of these so-called “straw-man” purchases makes it illegal for someone else to purchase a gun that is intended for another person. The federal form specifically states that if the person signing it is not the actual buyer, then the dealer cannot transfer the gun.
Abramski indicated he was the actual purchaser, which is why he was convicted and given five years probation.
He later appealed his conviction because he said that his uncle was not prohibited from buying the gun in the first place. All of the subsequent transactions, including the transfer to his uncle, were all done according to applicable laws and his uncle would have been able to purchase the gun on his own. His lawyer argued that the straw-purchase prohibition was about preventing firearms from falling into the hands of those not legally allowed to have one. This, according to his lawyer, makes his false statement irrelevant. Two lower courts didn’t agree with Abramski’s reasoning and upheld his conviction.
On Monday, in a 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court agreed.
In the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the majority pointed out that the elaborate federal system of in-person identification and background checks is necessary to prevent guns from falling into the hands of prohibited purchasers. Even if the owner (in this case Abramski’s uncle) is legally able to have a firearm, allowing someone else to essentially do the paperwork usurps the law’s intended purpose. Abramski’s false statement “prevented the dealer from insisting that the true buyer [Abramski’s uncle] appear in person, provide identifying information, show a photo ID, and submit to a background check.” This made the statement relevant to the legality of the sale.
The dissent was written by Justice Antonin Scalia and was joined by the court’s conservative justices. They disagreed with designating Abramski’s uncle as the actual buyer since he was not present. He likened it to sending his son with money to purchase eggs and milk, saying that no one would say the store sold the items to anyone but the person at the counter. In a footnote retort, Justice Kagan acknowledged that there was some ambiguity to the way the law was written, but that the law clearly defines the actual buyer as “the man getting, and always meant to get, the firearm.” This interpretation is the only one that makes the law actually work.
Abramski v. United States did not question the constitutionality of the law and neither did the ruling.
Photo by Ethan Miller via Thinkstock
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