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Please begin with an informative title:

In a 5-4 decision today authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court of the United States approved the constitutionality of a federal prosecution of a man who acted as a straw purchaser for a Glock handgun for his uncle, even though the uncle himself could have legally purchased the weapon, under a federal firearms statute imposing criminal penalties on any person who makes false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.”

Abramski checked "yes" to the background check question asking if he was the “actual transferee/buyer,” and signed the requisite certification, acknowledging his understanding that a false answer to that question was a federal crime. He cleared the background check, and deposited the $400 his uncle had given him for the purchase. (His intent, he claims, was that he thought he could use his former police ID to get a discount on the sale.)

Abramski offered two principal defenses for this actions: that his lie was not material to the sale, because his uncle would have passed the background check; and moreover that even if he were lying, the federal government never intended to penalize straw buyers in the first place. Join me below the gnocchi to see how the Court addressed these questions.

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As to the broader argument, Justice Kagan (with the three you'd expect, plus Occasional Swing Justice Kennedy) found that this claim would wholly undermine the statute:

The overarching reason is that Abramski’s reading would undermine—indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal—the gun law’s core provisions. As noted earlier, the statute establishes an elaborate system to verify a would-be gun purchaser’s identity and check on his background. It also requires that the information so gathered go into a dealer’s permanent records. The twin goals of this comprehensive scheme are to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who should not have them, and to assist law enforcement authorities in investigating serious crimes. And no part of that scheme would work if the statute turned a blind eye to straw purchases—if, in other words, the law addressed not the substance of a transaction, but only empty formalities.

To see why, consider what happens in a typical straw purchase. A felon or other person who cannot buy or own a gun still wants to obtain one. (Or, alternatively, a person who could legally buy a firearm wants to conceal his purchase, maybe so he can use the gun for criminal purposes without fear that police officers will later trace it to him.) Accordingly, the prospective buyer enlists an intermediary to help him accomplish his illegal aim. Perhaps he conscripts a loyal friend or family member; perhaps more often, he hires a stranger to purchase the gun for a price. The actual purchaser might even accompany the straw to the gun shop, instruct him which firearm to buy, give him the money to pay at the counter, and take possession as they walk out the door. What the true buyer would not do—what he would leave to the straw, who possesses the gun for all of a minute—is give his identifying information to the dealer and submit himself to a background check. How many of the statute’s provisions does that scenario—the lawful result of Abramski’s (and the dissent’s) reading of “transferee” and “person”—render meaningless?

And Congress, she explains, did not intend otherwise despite its lack of regulation of aftermarket sales:
Abramski, along with the dissent, objects that such action is no circumvention—that Congress made an intentional choice, born of “political compromise,” to limit the gun law’s compass to the person at the counter, even if merely acting on another’s behalf. As evidence, Abramski states that the statute does not regulate beyond the initial point of sale. Because the law mostly addresses sales made by licensed dealers, a purchaser can (within wide limits) subsequently decide to resell his gun to another private party.  And similarly, Abramski says, a purchaser can buy a gun for someone else as a gift. Abramski lumps in the same category the transfer of a gun from a nominal to a real buyer—as something, like a later resale or gift, meant to fall outside the statute’s (purported) standing-in-front-of-the-gun-dealer scope.

But Abramski and the dissent draw the wrong conclusion from their observations about resales and gifts. Yes, Congress decided to regulate dealers’ sales, while leaving the secondary market for guns largely untouched. As we noted in Huddleston, Congress chose to make the dealer the “principal agent of federal enforcement” in “restricting [criminals’] access to firearms.” And yes, that choice (like pretty much everything Congress does) was surely a result of compromise. But no, straw arrangements are not a part of the secondary market, separate and apart from the dealer’s sale. In claiming as much, Abramski merely repeats his mistaken assumption that the “person” who acquires a gun from a dealer in a case like this one is the straw, rather than the individual who has made a prior arrangement to pay for, take possession of, own, and use that part of the dealer’s stock. For all the reasons we have already given, that is not a plausible construction of a statute mandating that the dealer identify and run a background check on the person to whom it is (really, not fictitiously) selling a gun. The individual who sends a straw to a gun store to buy a firearm is transacting with the dealer, in every way but the most formal; and that distinguishes such a person from one who buys a gun, or receives a gun as a gift, from a private party. The line Congress drew between those who acquire guns from dealers and those who get them as gifts or on the secondary market, we suspect, reflects a host of things, including administrative simplicity and a view about where the most problematic firearm transactions—like criminal organizations’ bulk gun purchases—typically occur. But whatever the reason, the scarcity of controls in the secondary market provides no reason to gut the robust measures Congress enacted at the point of sale.

Justice Kagan similarly brushes aside the immateriality claim:
An analogy may help show the weakness of Abramski’s argument. Suppose a would-be purchaser, Smith, lawfully could own a gun. But further suppose that, for reasons of his own, Smith uses an alias (let’s say Jones) to make the purchase. Would anyone say “no harm, no foul,” just because Smith is not in fact a prohibited person under §922(d)? We think not. Smith would in any event have made a false statement about who will own the gun, impeding the dealer’s ability to carry out its legal responsibilities. So too here.

Abramski objects that because Alvarez could own a gun, the statute’s core purpose—“keeping guns out of the hands” of criminals and other prohibited persons—“is not even implicated.” But that argument (which would apply no less to the alias scenario) misunderstands the way the statute works. As earlier noted, the federal gun law makes the dealer “[t]he principal agent of federal enforcement.” It is that highly regulated, legally knowledgeable entity, possessing access to the expansive NICS database, which has the responsibility to “[e]nsure that, in the course of sales or other dispositions . . . , weapons [are not] obtained by individuals whose possession of them would be contrary to the public interest.”  Nothing could be less consonant with the statutory scheme than placing that inquiry in the hands of an unlicensed straw purchaser, who is unlikely to be familiar with federal firearms law and has no ability to use the database to check whether the true buyer may own a gun. And in any event, keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals is not §922’s only goal: The statute’s record-keeping provisions, as we have said, are also designed to aid law enforcement in the investigation of crime. Abramski’s proposed limitation on §922(a)(6) would undercut that purpose because many would-be criminals remain legally eligible to buy firearms, and thus could use straws to purchase an endless stream of guns off-the-books. See, e.g., Polk, 118 F. 3d, at 289 (eligible gun buyer used straw purchasers to secretly accumulate an “arsenal of weapons” for a “massive offensive” against the Federal Government).

Justice Scalia wrote for the four dissenters, adopting in full Abramski's argument that the federal law wasn't intended to apply to straw purchasers at all, ever:
We interpret criminal statutes, like other statutes, in a manner consistent with ordinary English usage. In ordinary usage, a vendor sells (or delivers, or transfers) an item of merchandise to the person who physically appears in his store, selects the item, pays for it, and takes possession of it. So if I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say that the store “sells” the milk and eggs to me.  And even if we were prepared to let “principles of agency law” trump ordinary English usage in the interpretation of this criminal statute, those principles would not require a different result....

Contrary to the majority’s assertion that the statute “merely raises, rather than answers, the critical question” of whether Abramski or his uncle was the “person” to whom the dealer “s[old]” the gun, the statute speaks to that question directly. Giving the text its plain, ordinary meaning, Abramski, not his uncle, was that “person.” That being so, the Government has identified no reason why the arrangement between Abramski and his uncle, both of whom were eligible to receive and possess firearms, was “material to the lawfulness of” the sale.

And Scalia would look at legislative and enforcement history here:
[P]erhaps Congress drew the line where it did because the Gun Control Act, like many contentious pieces of legislation, was a “compromise” among “highly interested parties attempting to pull the provisions in different directions.”  Perhaps those whose votes were needed for passage of the statute wanted a lawful purchaser to be able to use an agent. A statute shaped by political tradeoffs in a controversial area may appear “imperfect” from some perspectives, but “our ability to imagine ways of redesigning the statute to advance one of Congress’ ends does not render it irrational.” We must accept that Congress, balancing the conflicting demands of a divided citizenry, “ ‘wrote the statute it wrote’—meaning, a statute going so far and no further.”

That Abramski’s reading does not render the Act’s requirements “meaningless” is further evidenced by the fact that, for decades, even ATF itself did not read the statute to criminalize conduct like Abramski’s. After Congress passed the Act in 1968, ATF’s initial position was that the Act did not prohibit the sale of a gun to an eligible buyer acting on behalf of a third party (even an ineligible one). See Hearings Before the Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 1, 118 (1975). A few years later, ATF modified its position and asserted that the Act did not “prohibit a dealer from making a sale to a person who is actually purchasing the firearm for another person” unless the other person was “prohibited from receiving or possessing a firearm,” in which case the dealer could be guilty of “unlawfully aiding the prohibited person’s own violation.” ATF, Industry Circular 79–10 (1979), in (Your Guide To) Federal Firearms Regulation 1988–89 (1988), p. 78. The agency appears not to have adopted its current position until the early 1990's.

The majority deems this enforcement history “not relevant” because the Government’s reading of a criminal statute is not entitled to deference. But the fact that the agency charged with enforcing the Act read it, over a period of roughly 25 years, not to apply to the type of conduct at issue here is powerful evidence that interpreting the Act in that way is natural and reasonable and does not make its requirements “meaningless.”

And when in doubt, the dissenters urge, the "rule of lenity" should apply, an interpretive principle which states that ambiguous criminal statutes should be read narrowly in the defendant's favor:
[F]or the reasons given above, context and structure do not support the majority’s interpretation, history refutes it by showing that the Government itself interpreted the statute more leniently for many years, and “purpose” supports it only if one imputes to the statute a crime-fighting purpose broader than the text discloses (a practice that would nullify the rule of lenity in all cases). If lenity has no role to play in a clear case such as this one, we ought to stop pretending it is a genuine part of our jurisprudence.

Contrary to the majority’s miserly approach, the rule of lenity applies whenever, after all legitimate tools of interpretation have been exhausted, “a reasonable doubt persists” regarding whether Congress has made the defendant’s conduct a federal crime—in other words, whenever those tools do not decisively dispel the statute’s ambiguity. “[W]here text, structure, and history fail to establish that the Government’s position is unambiguously correct . . . we apply the rule of lenity and resolve the ambiguity in [the defendant]’s favor.”  It cannot honestly be said that the text, structure, and history of the Gun Control Act establish as “unambiguously correct” that the Act makes Abramski’s conduct a federal crime.

By refusing to apply lenity here, the majority turns its back on a liberty-protecting and democracy-promoting rule that is “perhaps not much less old than construction itself.” United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 95 (1820) (Marshall, C. J.); see, e.g., 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 88 (1765) (“Penal statutes must be construed strictly”). As Chief Justice Marshall wrote, the rule is “founded on the tenderness of the law for the rights of individuals; and on the plain principle that the power of punishment is vested in the legislative, not in the judicial department.” It forbids a court to criminalize an act simply because the court deems that act “of equal atrocity, or of kindred character, with those which are enumerated.” Today’s majority disregards that foundational principle.

Fourteen cases remain on the Court's docket to be decided this term.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Adam B on Mon Jun 16, 2014 at 09:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA, Good News, Firearms Law and Policy, and Daily Kos.

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