WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday debated whether a Virginia man who bought a gun for a relative in Pennsylvania can be considered an illegal straw purchaser when both men were legally eligible to purchase firearms.
The justices heard an appeal from Bruce James Abramski, Jr., a former police officer. Abramski bought a Glock 19 handgun in Collinsville, Va., in 2009 and transferred it to his uncle in Easton, Pa., who paid him $400.
Abramski was arrested after police thought he was involved in a bank robbery in Rocky Mount, Va. No charges were ever filed on the bank robbery, but officials charged him with making false statements about the purchase of the gun.
Abramski answered “yes” on 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’s lawyers told the high court that since both he and his uncle were legally allowed to own guns, the law shouldn’t have applied to him. “The only thing the straw purchaser doctrine in this case really accomplishes is to prohibit law-abiding citizens from buying guns for other law-abiding citizens, and that’s something that Congress expressly chose not to do,” said lawyer Richard D. Dietz.
The law’s purpose of being able to trace firearms would be undercut if the only record was of the straw purchaser, Justice Samuel Alito said. “This legislation, the way Congress designed it, is not focused on sort of the endpoint,” said Dietz. “It’s not concerned about where a gun is actually going, who’s ultimately going to receive it. What Congress was concerned about was the starting point.”
For example, a gun buyer can purchase a weapon, walk out of a store and then immediately legally resell the weapon to a stranger without a background check, Dietz said. “And Congress understood that that’s how the process would work and that was part of the compromise. What Congress wanted was accurate information about the initial person who acquires the firearm so at least they can try to do that trace,” he said.
If true, Alito said, that makes Congress’s gun background check law meaningless. “What you’re saying is they did a meaningless thing. That was the compromise. They would do something that’s utterly meaningless,” Alito said.
Justice Department lawyer Joseph R. Palmore said accepting Abramski’s defense “would greatly impair the ability of ATF to trace firearms and to have an accurate record of who that first purchaser of the firearm was.”
The true buyer’s “name is clearly being asked because Congress cared very much about preventing anonymous sales of firearms. It cared very much about having a record of who that first buyer was,” he said.
Justices will rule later this year.