High court: 'Straw' gun purchases are illegal

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The Supreme Court on Monday deemed “straw” purchases of firearms illegal, delivering a huge win to advocates of stricter gun controls.

In a 5-4 decision, the court concluded that one legal gun owner may not acquire a firearm on behalf of another. Instead, the majority ruled, all gun owners must undergo a federally mandated background check before obtaining firearms from licensed dealers.

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The ruling cut sharply along ideological lines, with the dissenting conservative justices maintaining there’s nothing in existing law to support the majority’s straw purchase ban. That split could set the stage for congressional action, if conservatives on Capitol Hill agree with the dissenting argument and wish to clarify the issue.

The case, Abramski v. United States, centered on a former police officer who bought a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle. Though both men were allowed to own guns, Bruce Abramski claimed on forms that he was the “actual transferee/buyer” of the weapon. He was convicted of making false statements after law enforcers, investigating his involvement in another crime, came upon the receipt.

Abramski argued that federal screenings required under the 1993 Brady gun law — screenings designed to keep firearms out of the hands of those who might use them on themselves or others — did not apply to his transaction.

The court, though ideologically split, disagreed.

“No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun’s purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority.

“Had Abramski admitted that he was not that purchaser, but merely a straw — that he was asking the dealer to verify the identity of, and run a background check on, the wrong individual — the sale here could not have gone forward,” Kagan wrote .

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined in the decision. 

Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia did not weigh in on the wisdom of a straw purchase ban but contended that current gun laws simply don’t back the majority’s finding.

“The Court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner,” he wrote. “Whether or not that is a sensible result, the statutes Congress enacted do not support it — especially when, as is appropriate, we resolve ambiguity in those statutes in favor of the accused.” 

Scalia was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. 

The ruling follows the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the case District of Columbia v. Heller, protecting an individual’s right to possess guns for self-defense. In that case, Kennedy, a frequent swing vote, sided with the court’s conservative wing.

Democratic supporters of tougher gun laws were quick to hail Monday’s ruling. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the court took a “positive step in the gun safety reform movement.” And Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.), head of the Democrats’ gun violence prevention task force, said the practice of straw purchasing “exploits a loophole in our criminal background check system and the court was right to keep it closed.”

Both lawmakers are pushing tougher gun control legislation, including a bill from Thompson to expand mandatory background checks to all firearms sales and a bill from Maloney to strengthen penalties on straw purchasers. Co-sponsored by Reps. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), Scott Rigell (R-Va.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Maloney’s proposal would establish prison terms of up to 20 years for those convicted of buying guns on behalf of others.

“More must be done to stop the illegal trafficking of firearms,” Maloney said.

Promoting his bill, Thompson warned that cracking down on straw purchases will only go so far to keep firearms away from dangerous people.

“Right now, those same prohibited purchasers who seek out a straw person to buy their guns can just as easily go online or drive to a gun show and get a gun with no questions asked,” he said. 

Those proposals have no chance of moving this year through the Republican-controlled House, though, where leaders have shown no interest in considering tougher gun laws.

The office of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declined to comment Monday on the high court’s ruling. 

The National Rifle Association also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which backs stronger limits on firearms, said Monday’s ruling “will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”  

“Once again the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the corporate gun lobby to undermine federal gun laws, reaffirming that sensible laws can have a big impact while being consistent with the Second Amendment,” Dan Gross, the group’s president, said in a statement.