The case, and the justices’ ultimate ruling, pose a threat to the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Provisions of those laws were intended to prevent the “straw” purchases of guns for other buyers.
It appeared that a slim majority of justices might assume that Congress meant to guard against those purchases even if the original law contains loopholes. Otherwise, Justice Elena Kagan said, “it does not matter whether the ultimate transferee was Al Capone or somebody else.”
In this case, the straw purchaser was a former Virginia police officer who bought an AR15 pistol for his uncle in Pennsylvania. Both were legal gun owners. But the initial purchaser, Bruce James Abramski, filled out a federal form indicating that he was the “actual buyer” of the firearm.
His attorney, Richard Dietz, argued that a compromise reached in Congress decades ago was meant to focus only on the initial buyer. Even if it did intend to identify the ultimate purchaser, he said, Abramski didn’t violate the law because his uncle was licensed to own guns.
“Congress didn’t use terms like ‘true buyer’ or ‘true purchaser’ or ‘actual buyer’ because they are not concerned about the ultimate recipients of firearms or what happens to a gun after it leaves the gun store,” Dietz said.
Some of the more conservative justices agreed that a literal reading of the statute supports Dietz’s argument. Several liberal justices — joined by conservative Justice Samuel Alito — said that cannot have been Congress’ intent.
“What you’re saying is they did a meaningless thing,” Alito said in reference to the provision covering straw purchases. “That was the compromise — they would do something that’s utterly meaningless.”
The Justice Department, seeking to uphold two lower court rulings against Abramski, argued that Congress always sought to identify the ultimate gun purchasers.
Assistant Solicitor General Joseph Palmore acknowledged that Congress mainly wanted to stop unregulated sales from gun dealers. “It didn’t want to go further and intrude on private transactions among unlicensed individuals,” he said.
Gun control advocates said the case threatens progress made as a result of the 1968 and 1994 laws.
“If the court accepts the gun lobby argument that federal law allows for straw purchases of guns, the felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill will be able to easily circumvent the Brady background check system to obtain guns from licensed dealers,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project.