Thursday, January 23, 2014

Supreme Court: What is a "Straw Buyer"

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear one hour of oral argument on the scope of the federal law that seeks to block “straw purchasers” of guns — that is, those who buy firearms for someone else without revealing that they have done so.  Arguing for a convicted Virginia man in the case of Abramski v. United States will be Richard D. Dietz of the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.  Representing the federal government will be Joseph R. Palmore, an Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General.

One of the strongest debates over guns in American society continues over the claim of Second Amendment protection for firearms owners.  The Supreme Court, however, has resisted spelling out the actual reach of that right in the more than five years since it first ruled that the Amendment protects a personal right to have a gun, at least for self-defense.  The Court, though, has been working on a series of side issues of gun control, and will do so again in the new case of Abramski v. United States.

Even though there is now a constitutional right to have a gun, there are categories of people who are not entitled to have a gun at all — such as convicted felons.  Thus, licensed gun dealers need to know who is buying a gun in order to know whether they are eligible to have it.

To deal with that situation, Congress has made it a federal crime for anyone who attempts to buy a gun or ammunition from a licensed gun dealer to make any false statement that might deceive the dealer about whether such a sale would be legal.  That is commonly known as the “straw purchaser” law, designed to discourage buyers from getting around bans on individuals’ access to a gun.

Federal officials have created a form — Form 4473 — that must be filed with the dealer at the time of a gun purchase.  One of the questions seeks a “Yes” or “No” answer to this:  ”Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm listed on this form?”  The form notes that the individual is not the actual buyer if he is buying it for someone else.  Thus, only actual buyers can purchase the specified gun.

The reach of that law and the government form’s coverage are now being tested in the Supreme Court by Bruce James Abramski, Jr., of Rocky Mount, Virginia — with support from the National Rifle Association and other gun owners’ groups.

A former state police officer, Abramski got caught up — mistakenly – in a federal investigation of a bank robbery in Rocky Mount in 2009, apparently because he was said to look like the bank robber, although the robber was masked. Abramski was ultimately cleared of any role in the bank robbery and of any federal charges related to the robbery.

However, during the federal investigation of Abramski, FBI agents searched his former residence in Rocky Mount.  That search turned up a receipt that his uncle, Angel Alvarez, had written to him for buying a Glock 19 handgun.

Federal prosecutors later said that Abramski, at his uncle’s request, had bought the Glock from a dealer in Collinsville, Virginia, who catered to police officers seeking guns.  He allegedly completed the government form, saying “yes” to the question about whether he was the actual buyer.  His uncle had sent him a $400 check for the weapon, the government said.  The gun was later transferred to his uncle, according to prosecutors, through a firearms dealer in Easton, Pennsylvania.

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