High court ponders if gun purchase for another is illegal

 Man bought gun in Virginia and transferred ownership to his uncle

By Kimberly Atkins
The Daily Record Newswire

WASHINGTON, DC — Trying to secure a bargain on a gun purchase landed a former cop in jail.

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide if that was the right outcome under the language of a statute aimed at rooting out “straw purchasers” of firearms.

The court heard oral arguments last week in Abramski v. U.S., 12-1493. Bruce Abramski, a former police officer, purchased a gun for his uncle for personal protection. Abramski made the gun purchase to save his uncle money, since Abramski was eligible for a law enforcement discount at gun stores.

Abramski bought the gun in his home state of Virginia, filling out all necessary paperwork in his own name and successfully passing the required background checks. He then visited a licensed gun dealer in Pennsylvania, where his uncle lived, to transfer ownership of the gun to the uncle after he passed all required screening.

After the transfer, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives discovered that Abramski’s uncle had paid him for the cost of the gun before its purchase. He reviewed the file and discovered that in his paperwork, Abramski answered “Yes” to the following question: “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.”

Abramski was indicted for making a false statement about the identity of the buyer that was “material to the lawfulness of the sale” under 18 U.S.C. §922(a)(6), the law designed to outlaw such “straw purchases” of guns.

He moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that § 922(a)(6) does not apply where a buyer purchases a gun to resell it to another lawful purchaser.

The district court denied the motion and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, adopting the reasoning of the 6th and 11th Circuits in holding that the law applies to such purchases even if the gun will be resold to an individual qualified to buy a gun.

The 5th and 9th Circuits have held to the contrary.

The Supreme Court granted Abramski’s petition for certiorari.

Guns, lies and background checks

Richard D. Dietz, a partner in the Winston Salem, N.C., office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, argued on Abramski’s behalf that the law was not meant to criminalize “a private transaction between two private citizens.”

“Congress did not want any regulation of those types of sales,” Dietz said. “That was part of the political compromise in the law.”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked whether that interpretation squared with the language of the law.

“Your position is that [Abramski’s answer] is not a material misstatement, is that correct?” Kennedy asked. “Why isn’t it material in light of the fact that it was on the government form that was promulgated [under] the regulation?”

Dietz said the form was not mandated by the statute, and was changed to add the warning language in response to litigation and court rulings.

“The statement is an interpretation of the case law about the straw purchaser doctrine,” he said.

Dietz argued that the agency did not have the authority to ask the question or give the warning, but Justice Antonin Scalia said that didn’t excuse making a dishonest statement on a federal form.

“Your client didn’t just say, ‘I won’t answer.’ He lied!” Scalia said.  “You can lie as long as the question is improper?”

Joseph R. Palmore, assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, argued that Abramski’s interpretation would allow anyone to purchase a gun on someone else’s behalf, whether for honest or nefarious reasons.

“Under petitioner’s view of the statute, I could approach someone in a parking lot outside of a licensed dealer” to buy a gun on someone else’s behalf, Palmore said.

But Scalia noted that private gun owners can sell their firearms without the buyer submitting to a background check.

“So the notion that the gun would somehow get into the hands of somebody who wasn’t registered or who couldn’t buy it himself, that’s going to happen anyway,” he said. “What you assert does not stop that problem.”

Palmore said that the intent to stop that problem is evident in the purpose of the law, which was to “reinforce a dealer-based regulatory system in which the eligibility of firearm transferees is determined based on” background checks.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pointed out that this piece of gun control legislation was the result of a careful congressional deal.

“I think it’s very problematic to talk about the overriding purpose when you’re dealing with a very sensitive compromise,” Roberts said. “There’s, as far as I can tell, nothing in the language of the statute that talks about straw men or actual buyers or anything like that.”

A ruling is expected later this term.

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