The United States Supreme Court at the end of the last term, June 18, 2015, decided the case of Abramski v. United States in a 5-4 decision. The Court upheld Bruce Abramski’s conviction for buying a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle.
The Gun Control Act (18 U.S.C. § 921) has been in effect since 1968 regulating the sale and purchase of firearms. In addition to prohibiting felons, drug addicts, mentally ill and other persons from not purchasing or possessing firearms, the act also forbids licensed firearm dealers from selling guns to persons “not appearing in person” at the gun shop or the purchase of a gun on behalf of another person.
Abramski was indicted by a grand jury for violating the Gun Control Act, however he argued that his misrepresentation on the purchase form was not “material to the lawfulness of the sale” because his uncle, Mr. Alvarez, was eligible to own the handgun under the Act.
In the majority decision, Justice Elena Kagan reasoned that “allowing straw-purchases of firearms would enable those groups specifically prohibited from owning guns to obtain them.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia countered the majority opinion and argued that the restrictions for gun ownership in the Gun Control Act of 1968 only apply to the person at the counter making the transaction and the Federal law made no distinction between people who bought guns for themselves and buyers who wanted to pass guns on to others.
The majority and dissenting opinions are filled with interesting arguments and counterarguments as noted in the following quoted passages from the opinions:
“Scalia: We interpret criminal statutes in a manner consistent with ordinary English usage. In ordinary usage, a vendor sells … 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.”
“Kagan: If I send my brother to the Apple Store with money and instructions to purchase an iPhone, and then take immediate and sole possession of that device, am I the ‘person’ who has bought the phone or is he? Nothing in ordinary English usage compels an answer either way.”
“Scalia: The majority makes the puzzling suggestion that the answer would be different if the sale involved consumer electronics instead of groceries. But whether the item sold is a carton of milk, an iPhone, or anything else under the sun, an ordinary English speaker would say that an over-the-counter merchant ‘sells’ the item to the person who pays for and takes possession of it, not the individual to whom that person later transfers the item.”
On orange hair
“Scalia: The majority [contends] ‘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.’ That certainly distinguishes that individual from the intended subsequent donee or purchaser; so would the fact that he has orange hair.”
“Kagan: But that is an example of wit gone wrong. Whether the purchaser has orange hair, we can all agree, is immaterial.”
Contrary to the dissent’s view …
“Scalia: The majority contends that the Gun Control Act’s ‘principal purpose’ of ‘curb[ing] crime by keeping firearms out of the hands of those not legally entitled to possess them’ …The majority’s purpose-based arguments describe a statute Congress reasonably might have written, but not the statute it wrote.”
“Kagan: Contrary to the dissent’s view, our analysis does not rest on mere ‘purpose-based arguments.’ We simply recognize that a court should not interpret each word in a statute with blinders on.
“We must (as usual) interpret the relevant words not in a vacuum, but with reference to the statutory context, ‘structure, history, and purpose.’ All those tools of divining meaning – not to mention common sense, which is a fortunate (though not inevitable) side-benefit of construing statutory terms fairly – demonstrate that [the rule], in regulating licensed dealers’ gun sales, looks through the straw to the actual buyer.”
The majority is entirely wrong
“Kagan: Nor do we agree with the dissent’s argument that the rule of lenity [a rule that supports defendants in cases of ambiguous language] defeats our construction. That rule, as we have repeatedly emphasized, applies only if, ‘after considering text, structure, history and purpose, there remains a grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute such that the court must simply guess as to what Congress intended.’ We are not in that position here: although the text creates some ambiguity, the context, structure, history, and purpose resolve it.”
“Scalia: The majority does not mention the rule of lenity apart from a footnote, responding to this dissent. … Context and structure do not support the majority’s interpretation, history refutes it by showing that the Government itself [was lenient] 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).”
“Kagan: The dissent would apply the rule of lenity here because the statute’s text, taken alone, permits a narrower construction … that is not the appropriate test.”
“Scalia: The majority is entirely wrong to charge that I would apply the rule of lenity ‘because the statute’s text, taken alone, permits a narrower construction.’ 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.”
But wait! There’s more …
“Scalia: The long list of information [required] to be kept in the dealer’s records does not include whether the transferee is buying the gun for an eligible third party.
“But wait! The majority says: another provision of the regulation requires a dealer to [complete a specific form for the] selling or disposing of a firearm. Therefore, according to the majority, any ‘false answer on that Form’ – even an answer to a question that is not among those enumerated in the regulation – necessarily ‘pertains to information a dealer is statutorily required to maintain.’
“That carries the text of the statute a bridge too far. On the majority’s view, if the bureaucrats responsible for creating [the form] decided to ask about the buyer’s favorite color, a false response would be a federal crime.”
“Kagan: The dissent argues that our view would impose criminal liability for a false answer even to an ‘ultra vires question’ [a ‘beyond our powers’ question] such as ‘the buyer’s favorite color.’ We need not, and do not, opine on that hypothetical, because it is miles away from this case. [The question of the true purchaser] is not ultra vires, but instead fundamental to the lawfulness of a gun sale.”