U.S. Supreme Court

Straw purchasers of guns may be prosecuted under background check law, SCOTUS says

Straw purchasers of guns may be prosecuted under a federal law criminalizing false statements by gun buyers who provide information for background checks, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The law provides criminal penalties for false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness” of a sale by a federally licensed gun dealer. In a 5-4 decision (PDF), the court said the law applies to a person who is buying a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming the purchase is for himself.

“We hold that such a misrepresentation is punishable under the statute, whether or not the true buyer could have purchased the gun without the straw,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. She was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, applauded the decision in a statement. “This is a very big and very positive decision that will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” he said. “Once again the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the corporate gun lobby to undermine federal gun laws.”

Bruce Abramski, a former police officer, was accused of violating the law by using his old police ID in an effort to get a discount on a gun for his uncle. He argued there was no material violation of the law because his uncle met the legal requirements to own a gun. In any event, he argued, a false response about the gun buyer is never a violation of the law.

“At its core,” Kagan wrote, “that argument relies on one true fact: Federal gun law regulates licensed dealers’ transactions with ‘persons’ or ‘transferees,’ without specifically referencing straw purchasers.”

Kagan said Abramski’s reading of the law “would undermine—indeed, for all important purposes,would virtually repeal—the gun law’s core provisions” that are intended to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and assist police investigating serious crimes.

“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 said. Anyone attempting to evade the law would simply secure a straw purchaser she said. “Deliverymen, after all, are not that hard to come by,” she said.

In a dissent joined by three other justices, Justice Antonin Scalia said the plain language of the statute does not apply to straw buyers. “The majority’s purpose-based arguments describe a statute Congress reasonably might have written, but not the statute it wrote,” Scalia said.

Government form 4473 asks gun buyers whether they are purchasing a gun for someone else, though the law did not require gun dealers to record that information, Scalia said. Instead, the law required the dealer to record the name and address of the person to whom the gun was sold or delivered, Scalia said.

“If I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say that the store ‘sells’ the milk and eggs to me,” Scalia wrote.

The majority reasoned that government regulations required gun dealers to retain the form, and the false answer to the form’s straw buyer question is materially false within the meaning of the statute, Scalia said. “On the majority’s view,” Scalia wrote, “if the bureaucrats responsible for creating Form 4473 decided to ask about the buyer’s favorite color, a false response would be a federal crime.”

Kagan responded in a footnote. “We need not, and do not, opine on that hypothetical, because it is miles away from this case,” she said. The form’s question about straw buyers is “not ultra vires, but instead fundamental to the lawfulness of a gun sale.”

The case is Abramski v. United States.

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