Lying about your gun purchase is never okay, the U.S. Supreme Court held Monday in a divided 5-4 ruling that upheld a robust interpretation of federal gun law. The ruling preserves the ability of federal prosecutors to crack down on what are known as “straw purchases,” one of the most common ways of illegally trafficking a gun.
Straw purchasing works like this. An individual who wants to buy a gun with the intent to commit a crime does not go to the store himself to buy it. He gets a third party to buy it. That third party goes through the background check. That third party’s name goes into the database, and the individual who ultimately desires the gun may not be traced back to the purchase.
Prosecutors have sought to crack down on those purchases by enforcing gun law provisions that make it illegal to lie about who the gun is for. But gun activists raised legal arguments that these purchases are not necessarily banned if the third party could have also been a legal purchaser. And they found a sympathetic plaintiff to become the face of this issue in the case decided Monday.
Bruce Abramski is a former police officer. He said he sought to buy a gun for his uncle, who lived in another state, because he thought he could get a discount using his police ID. So when Abramski purchased the gun, he said it was for him. In doing so, he checked “Yes” on a form asking whether he was the actual buyer, and signed a form stating that he understood lying was a violation of federal law. His uncle, Angel Alvarez, was also legally entitled to possess a gun. So Abramski was not aiming to skirt the law on who is legally entitled to possess a gun with the transfer.But in lying about his purchase of the gun, the government now had Abramski’s name on record, rather than Alvarez’s, preventing them from tracking later uses of the gun to Alvarez.
Police searched Abramski’s home when he was a suspect in a bank robbery, though he was later cleared of any role. They found the receipt showing that Abramski had sold the gun to his uncle, and later learned that Alvarez had sent him a check for $400 with “Glock 19 handgun” written in the subject line two days before he purchased the gun.
Prosecutors then charged Abramski for falsely claiming he was the buyer. But Abramski has argued that his false purchase is not a crime unless Alvarez were an unlawful purchaser. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that distinction, in a majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan that recognized the centrality of identifying gun buyers to federal gun law.
“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.”
“The overarching reason,” she explained, “is that Abramski’s reading would undermine—indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal—the gun law’s core provisions,” which establish “an elaborate system to verify a would-be gun purchaser’s identity and check on his background.”
There are several reasons for prosecuting these straw purchases, related to the dual purposes of federal gun law identified by Justice Kagan. One goal of federal gun law is to “keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who should not have them.” Abramski argued that so long as Alvarez is a legal purchaser, that goal is not threatened by their transfer. But the dynamic between third-party purchasers and the ultimate user of a gun is more complex than the picture painted here. In gun trafficking schemes, there may be two, three, or more go-betweens who hold the gun before it gets to the ultimate end user, who may be banned from purchasing a gun. Alvarez, for example, could have later sold the gun to another person, who sold it to another. Punishing the person who lies about their purchase in the first place prevents gun traffickers from skirting the law by arguing the legality of the immediate third party.
There is also a second goal of federal gun law, which is to “assist law enforcement authorities in investigating serious crimes.” This pursuit is severely thwarted by Abramski’s purchase of a gun. If Alvarez were to later commit a crime using the gun purchased by Abramski, that gun might be traced to Abramski — the first purchaser on the background check form — rather than Alvarez, shielding Alvarez from the gun used in the crime.
Making it a crime to lie about the actual buyer allows prosecutors to enforce the federal law’s fundamental purpose of identifying and vetting gun purchasers, in a climate in which straw purchases are a key component of illicit gun trafficking. Of the gun trafficking cases studied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2000, 48 percent involved straw purchases.
The majority ruling, therefore, preserved prosecutors’ ability to enforce existing federal law. But existing federal law is limited, because it still leaves the loophole of private transfers. As a recent Center for American Progress report explains, it is exceedingly difficult to prove that an individual intended to purchase a gun on behalf of another because “it turns on what was in a person’s mind at the time they bought the gun.” Abramski’s case included rare direct evidence that Abramski intended to purchase the gun for Alvarez before the purchase was even made. But what if Abramski had purchased the gun and then simply decided to sell it to Alvarez a week later through a private sale? Or resolved to give it to Alvarez as a gift, rather than at the request of Alvarez? As the four dissenters point out in arguing against Ambraski’s prosecution, these transactions may or may not have broken the law, and certainly would not require background checks, under the loophole in federal law Congress failed to close in the wake of the Newtown Massacre.
If that loophole were closed, then others like Abramski would have been breaking the law in a much more obvious and enforceable way if they not only lied about their purchase, but later sold the gun to an individual such as Alvarez without requiring a background check.