In a rare victory for common sense in the gun debate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the federal ban on “straw” purchases can be enforced even if the person who eventually gets the gun is legally allowed to have one. The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote, voted with the majority.
Kagan found that any other reading of the statute, which prevents someone from buying a gun for someone else, would gut the federal law. The case involved a Virginia man who bought a Glock handgun for his uncle who lived in Pennsylvania. Bruce James Abramski Jr. assured the Virginia dealer that he was the actual buyer of the gun and then lied on a federal form. His uncle was legally allowed to buy a gun, but Abramski, a former police officer, thought he could get his uncle a better deal using his police discount.
Abramski argued that his false statement on the form was immaterial and that as long as the ultimate buyer was legally allowed to have a weapon, he had done no wrong. Kagan wrote that the government’s system of background checks and record keeping wouldn’t mean much if a buyer could get around them by having someone else make the purchase.
Absolutely right. That information helps police to fight serious crime. When officers recover a weapon, they need the ability to accurately trace it to the buyer. If the law can be flouted, it has no meaning.
“The overarching reason is that Abramski’s reading would undermine — indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal — the gun law’s core provisions,” Kagan wrote. “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. 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.”
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the language of the law was not clear enough to make it a crime for one lawful buyer to purchase a gun for another lawful buyer.
The police need all the lawful tools they can get to fight crime. Upholding a sensible federal law that allows them to do so with no harm to the rights of gun owners helps. Gun activists decried the decision, of course, because that’s what they do. Don’t listen.
The court got this one right.