Court agrees with ban on ‘straw purchases’ of guns


A network television news camera sits ready outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2014. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A divided Supreme Court said Monday that the federal government may strictly enforce a law that prohibits straw purchases of guns intended for others, siding with gun-control groups and the Obama administration.

The court by a 5-to-4 vote upheld the conviction of Bruce James Abramski Jr., a former police officer in Virginia, who bought a Glock handgun for his uncle in Pennsylvania, hoping to get a discount on the sale. Because both men were eligible to own guns, Abramski claimed he had not run afoul of the law.

But Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court’s liberals plus Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said the government has good reason to prevent “straw purchasers” and insist that the person who buys a gun be the weapon’s legitimate owner.

Background checks of those buying guns keep firearms out of the hands of convicted felons and the mentally ill, Kagan said, and allow law enforcement to trace guns used in crimes back to their purchasers.

“Abramski’s reading would undermine — indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal — the gun law’s core provision,” Kagan wrote. She added, “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.”

Besides Kennedy, she was joined in the opinion by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, saying that it is not a crime for “one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner.” He said people are free to buy guns for others as gifts or even for raffles.

His dissent was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Abramski purchased the Glock 19 for his uncle Angel Alvarez after the relative gave him a check for $400. Abramski mistakenly believed that his status as a former police officer would entitle him to a discount.

At the gun shop, Abramski was presented with a federal form asking: “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 answered yes.

The purchase came to light after police suspected that Abramski had been involved in a bank robbery. No charges were filed, but police found the receipt for the gun and charged him with making false statements about the purchase.

Abramski argued that the “purchaser” of the gun is the person at the counter, regardless of whether he sells or gives the gun to someone else later.

Kagan acknowledged that the text of the law “creates some ambiguity” but added that “the context, structure, history and purpose resolve it.”

Had Abramski admitted that he was not the real purchaser, Kagan wrote, “the sale here could not have gone forward.”

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the ruling “will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

Noting that the National Rifle Association had supported Abramski, he added that the court “rejected efforts by the corporate gun lobby to undermine federal gun laws.”

The case is Abramski v. U.S.

Political speech

The justices ruled unanimously that a group may challenge an Ohio law that prohibits making “false statements” about candidates during a political campaign. Lower courts had said the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List did not have standing to challenge the Ohio law because it has not been prosecuted.

But the Supreme Court held that just the threat of criminal charges over political speech was enough to allow the group to challenge the constitutionality of the statute.

“Denying prompt judicial review would impose a substantial hardship on petitioners, forcing them to choose between refraining from core political speech on the one hand, or engaging in that speech and risking costly . . . proceedings and criminal prosecution on the other,” Thomas wrote for the court.

The case did not call on the court to decide whether the Ohio law — similar to those in more than a dozen states — was unconstitutional. But at oral argument in April , justices across the ideological spectrum expressed skepticism that a government commission could prohibit groups from saying what they wanted about a candidate.

The Susan B. Anthony List wanted to erect a billboard during the 2010 reelection campaign of Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) concerning his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. It would have said “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR ­taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, saying the claim was false. The billboard company declined to erect the campaign statement. Driehaus lost and dropped the complaint, and lower courts said that as a result the group did not have legal standing to proceed with its challenge of the law.

But Thomas said the court had never held that “an actual arrest, prosecution or other enforcement action” is required before a law can be challenged. The case was sent back to lower courts.

It is Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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