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June 16, 2014

Notable split 5-4 SCOTUS ruling against federal defendant shows power of gun politics

When I see that the Supreme Court has split 5-4 in a (non-sentencing) criminal case, I typically expect to see certain usual suspects on each side of the divide with Justice Kennedy serving as the swing vote.  Today, in Abramski v. US, No. 12-1493 (S. Ct. June 16, 2014) (available here), Justice Kennedy is the swing vote joining with the more liberal members of the Court. But they are together upholding a federal conviction  — no doubt, I am prepared to say, because at issue is the broad application of a federal gun control statute.

Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started in Abramski:

Before a federally licensed firearms dealer may sell a gun, the would-be purchaser must provide certain personal information, show photo identification, and pass a background check. To ensure the accuracy of those submissions, a federal statute imposes criminal penalties on any person who, in connection with a firearm’s acquisition, makes false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6). In this case, we consider how that law applies to a so-called straw purchaser — namely, a person who buys a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming that it 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 Scalia's dissent, which garnered the votes of the Chief, Justice Thomas and even (the usually-consistent friend of federal prosecutors) Justice Alito, gets started this way:

Bruce Abramski bought a gun for his uncle from a federally y licensed gun dealer, using money his uncle gave him for that purpose. Both men were legally eligible to receive and possess firearms, and Abramski transferred the gun to his uncle at a federally licensed gun dealership in compliance with state law.  When buying the gun, Abramski had to fill out Form 4473 issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). In response to a question on the form, Abramski affirmed that he was the “actual/transferee buyer” of the gun, even though the form stated that he was not the “actual transferee/buyer” if he was purchasing the gun for a third party at that person’s request and with funds provided by that person.

The Government charged Abramski with two federal crimes under the Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, 18 U.S.C. §§ 921–931: making a false statement “material to the lawfulness of the sale,” in violation of § 922(a)(6), and making a false statement “with respect to information required by [the Act] to be kept” by the dealer, in violation of § 924(a)(1)(A). On both counts the Government interprets this criminal statute to punish conduct that its plain language simply does not reach. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s holding to the contrary.

June 16, 2014 at 10:25 AM | Permalink


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I think this case is a case of zealous overprosecution. I don't think the statute was designed to stop people from letting someone else use their discount, which is essentially the heart of the wrongdoing here.

That being said, I find the dissent's reading of the statute as something that doesn't touch straw purchases at all to be implausible. The majority is correct that the whole scheme seems set up to check the intended recipient and the particular provision can be plausibly read as designed to prevent circumvention of the scheme (in fact, the contrary reading makes whole provisions a mere formalism).

Once again, the Court reaches a decision without considering the Second Amendment and I think that's fine (separate legal questions should be considered separately). That being said, this case isn't at all about the right to keep and bear arms, it's about the right to keep ownership a secret. Nothing prevented the Defendant's Uncle from purchasing that firearm - he just wasn't going to get a discounted price. So this is one case where there really doesn't seem to be much of a Second Amendment issue.

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 16, 2014 12:12:26 PM

I think the first comment is overall correct, skipping over the first sentence.

Kagan notes that the statute was in place to "ensure the accuracy of those submissions" necessary to purchase a gun. The implication of some is that since the person who ultimately obtained the gun had a legal right to it, we shouldn't really care (I don't want to focus on Erik M's comment here, so not making this about him here).

But, proper procedures are important, and "breaking the rules is okay since it doesn't really matter" doesn't quite work there. So, even if the ultimate end is to target those who should not have guns, cases of this sort are of some concern. Prosecution sends a message for others, including more troubling cases where maybe for whatever reason the government might not be able to catch the person or prosecute, who might wish to cut corners like this in a way that makes regulation of firearms harder.

The punishment implications (here five years of probation) does concern me. Also, looking at the brief of the U.S., one interest here is tracking the gun later on. In that respect, even in good faith breach of the rules complicates matters.


Posted by: Joe | Jun 17, 2014 12:37:14 PM

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