High Court Divided Sharply in Upholding Straw Buyer Charges
WASHINGTON (CN) - A man was properly convicted of acting as a straw buyer after getting a gun for an uncle who could have bought the firearm himself, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Bruce Abramski Jr. sold a Glock 19 to his uncle in Pennsylvania in November 2009 just three days after assured a firearms dealer in Virginia that he was the actual purchaser of the handgun.
The actions might have gone unnoticed had Abramski not come under FBI scrutiny that month for a local bank robbery in Virginia.
Apparently Abramski matched the description of the masked bank robber, and authorities were also aware that Abramski was down on his luck, having been fired from the Roanoke police department two years earlier, faced with foreclosure and separated from his wife.
Federal authorities never charged Abramski with the bank robbery, but evidence they found with a search warrant led a grand jury to indict the man on being an illegal straw purchaser of a firearm.
State bank robbery charges against Abramski were dismissed in 2010, and Abramski pleaded guilty the next year to two firearms offenses, violations of Sections 922(a)(6) and 924(a)(1)(A).
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit affirmed in January 2013, though Abramski maintained that his conduct was beyond the purview of the charged statutes since "both he and his uncle were legally entitled to purchase and own the Glock 19 handgun."
The Supreme Court took up the case later that year but affirmed as well, 5-4, on Monday.
In finding that Section 922 "looks through the straw to the actual buyer," the majority said that Abramski's contrary "reading would undermine - indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal - the gun law's core provisions."
"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," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. "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 quickly tallied the various safeguards that straw buyership rips asunder.
"Putting true numbskulls to one side, anyone purchasing a gun for criminal purposes would avoid leaving a paper trail by the simple expedient of hiring a straw," she wrote.
The majority did not take much stock in Abramski's arguments about the legality of reselling or gifting firearms.
"Yes, Congress decided to regulate dealers' sales, while leaving the secondary market for guns largely untouched," Kagan wrote.
"And yes, that choice (like pretty much everything Congress does) was surely a result of compromise," she added (parentheses in original). "But no, straw arrangements are not a part of the secondary market, separate and apart from the dealer's sale. In claiming as much, Abramski merely repeats his mistaken assumption that the 'person' who acquires a gun from a dealer in a case like this one is the straw, rather than the individual who has made a prior arrangement to pay for, take possession of, own, and use that part of the dealer's stock. For all the reasons we have already given, that is not a plausible construction of a statute mandating that the dealer identify and run a background check on the person to whom it is (really, not fictitiously) selling a gun. 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. The line Congress drew between those who acquire guns from dealers and those who get them as gifts or on the secondary market, we suspect, reflects a host of things, including administrative simplicity and a view about where the most problematic firearm transactions - like criminal organizations' bulk gun purchases - typically occur. But whatever the reason, the scarcity of controls in the secondary market provides no reason to gut the robust measures Congress enacted at the point of sale."
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in dissent that Abramski was improrperly convicted because his false statement "was not 'material to the lawfulness of the sale' since the truth - that Abramski was buying the gun for his uncle with his uncle's money - would not have made the sale unlawful."
"Ensuring that the person taking possession of the firearm from the dealer is eligible to receive and possess a firearm, and recording information about that person for later reference, are by no means worthless functions," Scalia added. "On the contrary, they indisputably advance the purpose of crime prevention by making it harder for ineligible persons to acquire guns and easier for the government to locate those guns in the future; they simply do not advance that purpose to the same degree as a more exacting law might have done."
Scalia also emphasized that "the long list of information that this regulation requires to be kept in the dealer's records does not include whether the transferee is buying the gun for an eligible third party."
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor sided with the majority, while Chief Justice John Roberts joined the dissent along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.