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SCOTUS: “Straw” purchase prohibition applies even when true purchaser may lawfully own gun

Abramski v. United States, USSC No. 12-1493, 2014 WL 2676779 (June 16, 2014), affirming United States v. Abramski, 706 F.3d 307 (4th Cir. 2013); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Resolving a split between federal circuit courts of appeal, the Supreme Court holds that the prohibition in 18 U. S. C. § 922(a)(6) against making false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale” of a firearm applies to a “straw” purchaser—a person who buys a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming that it is for himself—even if the true buyer could have purchased the gun legally.

Abramski purchased a handgun for his uncle, who could have lawfully purchased and possessed the gun. The form that federal regulations required Abramski to fill out at the time of purchase (Form 4473) asked whether he was the “actual transferee/buyer” of the gun and clearly warned that a straw purchaser was not the “actual buyer” for purposes of the sale. Abramski falsely answered that he was the actual buyer and was prosecuted for violating § 922(a)(6). (Slip op. at 5-6). He argued § 922 doesn’t care about arrangements with straw purchasers and that, so long as “the person at the counter” is eligible to own a gun, the sale is legal; thus, stating that he, rather than his uncle, was the “actual” buyer was not “material to the lawfulness of the sale.” Alternatively, because his uncle could have legally bought the gun, his statement was not “material to the lawfulness of the sale.” (Slip op. at 7-8, 19).

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court disagrees. The Court acknowledges the statutory language refers to transactions of a gun dealer with “persons” or “transferees” without mentioning straw purchasers. “But that language merely raises, rather than answers, the critical question: In a straw purchase, who is the ‘person’ or ‘transferee’ whom federal gun law addresses? Is that ‘person’ the middleman buying a firearm on someone else’s behalf (often because the ultimate recipient could not buy it himself, or wants to camouflage the transaction)? Or is that ‘person’ instead the individual really paying for the gun and meant to take possession of it upon completion of the purchase? Is it the conduit at the counter, or the gun’s intended owner?” (Slip op. at 9).

Interpreting the statute with reference to its context, structure, history, and purpose, the Court concludes, shows that § 922 “looks through the straw to the actual buyer.” (Id.). In particular, the firearms law contemplates that the dealer will check the identity and eligibility for gun ownership of the true purchaser, not the fictitious purchaser, because the dealer must (except in a few narrow cases) engage in the transaction with the buyer face-to-face, § 922(c), record his name, age, and residence, § 922(b)(5), inspect his photo ID, § 922(t)(1)(C), submit his identifying information to the background check system, § 922(t)(1)(B), and determine whether he was prohibited from receiving a firearm, § 922(d). (Slip op. at 10-13).

All the prerequisites [in § 922] for buying a gun … refer to a “person” or “transferee.” Read Abramski’s way (“the man at the counter”), those terms deny effect to the regulatory scheme, as criminals could always use straw purchasers to evade the law. Read the other way (“the man getting, and always meant to get, the firearm”), those terms give effect to the statutory provisions, allowing them to accomplish their manifest objects. That alone provides more than sufficient reason to understand “person” and “transferee” as referring not to the fictitious but to the real buyer. (Slip op. at 13-14 (footnote omitted)).

Given the requirements of the statute, Abramski’s false statement on the form that he was the buyer was material to the lawfulness of the sale despite the fact his uncle could legally purchase and possess a gun. Had Abramski admitted on the form that his uncle was the buyer, the sale could not have proceeded because it wouldn’t have complied with § 922’s requirements. (Slip op. at 19-22). Thus, by concealing the actual buyer’s identity, Abramski “thwarted application of essentially all of the firearm law’s requirements. We can hardly think of a misrepresentation any more material to a sale’s legality.” (Slip op. at 19).

Further, because Form 4473 must be kept as part of the dealer’s required records, the Court affirms Abramski’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(1)(A), which prohibits “knowingly mak[ing] any false statement … with respect to the information required by this chapter to be kept in the records” of a federally licensed dealer. (Slip op. at 22-23).

A dissent by Justice Scalia, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Alito, disputes the majority’s statutory analysis. “The Court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner. Whether or not that is a sensible result, the statutes Congress enacted do not support it ….” (Dissent at 15).

The resolution of the circuit split is obviously important to federal practitioners handling prosecutions under § 922, even though the Seventh Circuit hadn’t taken a side on the split. As for state practitioners, we noted in our post on the cert grant that there is a related state-law provision, § 175.35, which requires handgun purchasers to provide ID and fill out a form so the gun dealer can check the buyer’s eligibility to purchase the gun, § 175.35(2)(a) and (2g). The buyer “shall provide truthful information” on the form, § 175.35(2e), and failure to do so is a misdemeanor, § 175.35(3). (These requirements are fleshed out more fully in Wis. Admin. Code § Jus 10.06.) As with the federal statute, there is no express reference to straw purchasers, and unlike Form 4473, Wisconsin’s form (see pp. 6-7 of this document) doesn’t warn that straw purchasers are not “actual” buyers. There are no cases dealing with “straw purchases” under our statute (probably because the cases are prosecuted under federal law); if one ever arises, the state will likely lean heavily on the context, structure, and purpose reasoning in this decision to argue § 175.35 prohibits straw purchases.

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