RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Town Gun Shop
DOCKET NO.: 12-1493
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
CITATION: 573 US (2014)
GRANTED: Oct 15, 2013
ARGUED: Jan 22, 2014
DECIDED: Jun 16, 2014
Joseph R. Palmore - on behalf of the respondent
Richard D Dietz - on behalf of the petitioner
Facts of the case
In November 2009, Bruce Abramski learned that his uncle wanted to purchase a new 9mm Glock handgun. Abramski offered to purchase this weapon because, as a former Virginia police officer, he could get a discount. On November 17, Abramski purchased the handgun and completed a form distributed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") on which he checked a box indicating that he was not buying the gun on behalf of another person.
In June 2010, Abramski was arrested for suspicion of committing a bank robbery. During a search of his home, the police found a receipt showing that Abramski gave the handgun to his uncle in exchange for $400. The police charged Abramski with violating federal law by making a false, material statement on an ATF form and with respect to information kept by a licensed firearms dealer. Specifically, the government argued that Abramski knowingly made a false statement to a firearms dealer, that he intended to deceive the firearms dealer, and that he made the false statement about a "material fact" when he did not disclose that he was buying the firearm for his uncle. A grand jury subsequently indicted Abramski.
Abramski moved to dismiss the indictment and suppress evidence regarding the receipt. He argued that he legally transferred the firearm to his uncle and therefore never made any false statements to the ATF or the firearms dealer. He also argued that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights because they did not have a proper warrant to conduct the search of his home from which the receipt resulted. The trial court denied Abramski's motion, stating that, because he did not disclose that the firearm was meant for his uncle, Abramski withheld a "material fact" required when purchasing a firearm. The trial court also held that the police did not violate Abramski's Fourth Amendment rights. Abramski entered a conditional guilty plea and received five years of probation and a $200 fine. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
1. Is a gun buyer's intent to sell the firearm to another buyer a "material fact" under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(b), a firearm disclosure statute?
2. Is a federally licensed firearms dealer required to keep information regarding a purchaser's intent to sell a firearm to another person?
Media for Abramski v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 22, 2014 in Abramski v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 16, 2014 in Abramski v. United States
Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 12-1493 Abramski v. United States.
Federal law tightly regulates the sale of guns by licensed firearms dealers.
An issue in this case is a provision of the Federal Criminal Code Section 922(a)(6) which makes a criminal for a would-be gun buyer to lie to the dealer about any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.
We had to decide in this case whether that provision applies to a straw purchase of a gun.
That is when a person buys a gun on behalf of someone else while falsely claiming that it is for himself.
In this case, petitioner, Bruce Abramski, offered to buy a gun for his uncle believing that he could get a discount on the purchase.
His uncle agreed and sent Abramski a check.
Abramski then went to a licensed gun dealer to buy the gun.
There, he had to fill out a federal form that asked him whether he was the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm.
In conspicuous bold letters, the form warned him that he was not the actual buyer if he was purchasing the gun on behalf of some other person.
Nonetheless, Abramski answered yes, that he was the actual buyer.
After leaving the store with the gun, he cashed the check his uncle had given him and then gave the gun to his uncle.
The Government indicted Abramski under Section 922(a)(6) for making the false statement.
Abramski moved to dismiss the indictment claiming that his full statement was not material to the lawfulness of the sale.
The District Court rejected that argument.
Abramski pled guilty and then appealed the District Court's decision but the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
And today, we also affirm the Fourth Circuit.
Abramski's primary argument is that Section 922(a)(6) simply doesn't apply to misstatements in connection with straw purchasers.
In his view, the federal gun law is concerned only with the identity of the person who shows up at the dealer's counter to obtain the gun.
On that view, the sale to him would have been lawful even if he had admitted that he was a straw purchaser, so his misrepresentation was not material.
We think that's wrong.
The text of the gun law alone leaves some ambiguity on this question.
It refers merely to persons and transferees.
It doesn't say whether in a case like this one, that means the man at the counter or the man who was a result of the transaction will actually come away with ownership and control of the gun.
But we think that when the languages read in its broader context, it clearly refers to the true buyer.
The focus on the straw who may possess the gun for all of the minute rather than the always intended true buyer would virtually repeal core provisions of the federal gun law.
Under federal law, a dealer may not sell to anyone legally prohibited from owning a firearm like felons and the mentally ill.
To enforce that prohibition, the law requires that the buyer show up in person, provide his name, age and address, show a photo I.D. and pass a federal background check.
The law also imposes record-keeping requirements to enforce those provisions and to assist law enforcement officers in investigating crimes by tracing guns to buyers.
Those provisions would all mean very little.