In the fall of 2009, former police officer Bruce Abramski offered to buy a firearm for his uncle because he could receive a discount on the firearm at a local Virginia gun store. His uncle sent him a check for the cost of the gun, and Abramski purchased the gun legally through an FFL, and checked the box that stated he was the “actual buyer” of the gun on the ATF form. Abramski then went to Pennsylvania where his uncle lives, and transferred the gun to his uncle through a Pennsylvania FFL, where his uncle filled out the correct paperwork and underwent a background check.
In the summer of 2010, Abramski was arrested for a bank robbery committed a few days before the gun purchase (charges were dismissed), and in their search of his home, the FBI found a written receipt from Abramski’s uncle regarding the gun transfer. Based on this, a federal grand jury indicted Abramski for making a false statement on the ATF form claiming he was the actual buyer of the firearm, and making a false statement about information required to be kept by a firearms dealer.
Abramski filed two motions to dismiss these charges, but both were denied by the federal district court. As part of a plea bargain, Abramski entered a conditional guilty plea and then filed a limited appeal to the Fourth Circuit which affirmed the district court’s decisions. Finally Abramski petitioned for a writ of certiorari (a review of the lower court’s judgment for legal error) which the Supreme Court granted on October 15, 2013.
Abramski is arguing that the district court exceeded its statutory authority by applying the straw purchaser doctrine to this case because the ultimate purchase was a lawful gun buyer. However, the United States is arguing that it is irrelevant whether the ultimate purchase is a lawful gun buyer, and that straw purchases are clearly forbidden b the statutory text. Congressman Steve Stockman, Robert E. Sanders (former ATF official), and several gun advocacy groups are supporting Abramski, stating that Congress did not intend to require dealers to verify the identity of the actual purchaser, but only that of the transferee. The NRA argues that Congress did not intend to prohibit purchases by lawful gun owners, and intended only to forbid sales to certain prohibited persons, and that the current interpretation incorrectly criminalizes the behavior of lawful purchasers.
On the other hand, the United States is arguing that permitting straw purchases would frustrate the Gun Control Act’s recordkeeping and screening functions. However, in this case, both Abramski and his uncle filled out the ATF form and underwent a background check, so the recordkeeping and screening functions were, in theory, not jeopardized.
So what exactly is a straw purchase? 18 U.S. Code § 922- Unlawful Acts states that “It shall be unlawful for any person in connection with the acquisition or attempted acquisition of any firearm or ammunition from a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, licensed dealer, or licensed collector, knowingly to make any false or fictitious oral or written statement or to furnish or exhibit any false, fictitious, or misrepresented identification, intended or likely to deceive such importer, manufacturer, dealer, or collector with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale or other disposition of such firearm or ammunition under the provisions of this chapter;” Does this mean that one cannot purchase a firearm as a gift for someone else? Does this mean that one law-abiding citizen cannot legally purchase a gun and then legally transfer it to another person?
The answers to these questions will have to wait until the Supreme Court rules. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide and clarify whether the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits all straw purchases of firearms, regardless of whether the final purchaser is a lawful one or not. The Court will also determine whether the identity of the intended buyer is a material fact to the sale of the gun. So for now we will have to wait and see what decisions are made in the upcoming months.