Monday, June 16, 2014

SCOTUS Upholds Federal Law Prohibiting "Straw Purchase" of Firearms

In a case announced today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law that prohibits persons from purchasing firearms for other persons from licensed dealers.  In Abramski v. U.S., a nephew (Abramski) agreed to purchase a firearm for his uncle using his law-enforcement discount.  In completing the Form 4473, the nephew replied in the affirmative that he was the actual purchaser of the firearm.  It was later discovered via investigation pertaining to an independent crime that Abramski purchased the firearm (a GLOCK pistol) expressly for his uncle, who paid him directly for the firearm's purchase price.  Although the uncle was in all forms and manner eligible to legally own/possess a firearm, Abramski was prosecuted and convicted for making false statements on the firearms purchase form.

In writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Kagan stated that the law had a clear purpose of keeping ineligible persons from obtaining firearms through indirect purchases through eligible persons, and that, in adhering to the express language of the law, there was no distinction made between purchasing firearms for legally-eligible or ineligible persons.  Justice Scalia, dissenting, disagreed, saying that even if Abramski's claim that he was the actual buyer of the firearm was false, such statement was not material to the otherwise lawfulness of the transaction since, but for the false answer, the firearms transaction was legal in all other respects.  Scalia also argued that it was not altogether legally settled that Abramski was in fact not the buyer of the firearm, as there is no clear law stating that a person who conducts a face-to-face purchase is not in fact the purchaser, regardless of what his ultimate intent or motive for the merchandise may be.

It is important to understand what this ruling does and does not do.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) has long held that purchasing a firearm to later give as a GIFT does not constitute a straw purchase unless the purchaser knows or has reason to know that the gift recipient is legally ineligible to own/possess a firearm.  The situation at bar in Abramski was clearly NOT a gift, since the uncle paid Abramski for the firearm, and therefore the court's ruling does not appear to change the legality of purchasing a firearm to later give as an outright gift.  However, outside the scope of a gift, the ruling in Abramski seems to make it clear that purchases intended for others, whether they are legally eligible to own/posses guns or not, are illegal.

Firearms laws change constantly, along with the court rulings interpreting them.  It is always advisable to consult an experienced attorney when issues arise concerning the sale, transfer, transport, use and possession of firearms.

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