The federal Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, 18 U.S.C. § 921 et seq., regulates the sale of firearms by licensed dealers. It also prohibits certain individuals from owning or possessing firearms. A “straw buyer” or “straw purchaser” is someone who purchases a gun for someone else, possibly a prohibited buyer, without disclosing this on the form required by the federal government for gun sales. The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered whether it violates the GCA for someone to conduct a straw purchase of a gun for someone who is not a prohibited buyer. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that it is a violation. Abramski v. United States, 573 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2259 (2014).
People who are prohibited by the GCA from owning or possessing a gun include people who have been convicted of a felony, undocumented immigrants, people committed to mental institutions, drug addicts, and fugitives. 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). Licensed dealers are prohibited from selling a gun to anyone whom they know, or have “reasonable cause to believe,” is a prohibited buyer. Id. at § 922 (d). A purchaser typically must appear in person to purchase a gun and provide personal identifying information to the dealer by completing Form 4473, the “Firearms Transaction Record.” The gun dealer checks the form against a national database of prohibited buyers. A person commits a federal crime if he or she “knowingly…make[s] any false or fictitious oral or written statement” in connection with buying a gun from a licensed dealer. Id. at § 922(a)(6).
Question 11.a. on Form 4473 asks whether the purchaser is the actual buyer. The defendant in Abramski was a former police officer who intended to buy a gun for his uncle using a discount he thought he could get by showing his police identification. He falsely answered “yes” to Question 11.a., but he then learned he could no longer use the discount. He was indicted for false statements under § 922(a)(6) and unauthorized firearms dealing under § 922(a)(1)(A). He entered a conditional guilty plea, which allowed him to appeal.
After the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction, 706 F.3d 307 (2013), the Supreme Court granted certiorari because of a split among the circuits about whether “a false answer to Question 11.a. is immaterial if the true buyer is legally eligible to purchase a firearm.” Abramski, 134 S.Ct. at 2265. The defendant argued that a false answer to that question is never material, since the purpose of the GCA was to regulate gun dealers, not buyers.
Five justices disagreed and affirmed the convictions, finding that the law has an important role in law enforcement. Justice Kagan wrote that this interpretation would “render the required records close to useless for aiding law enforcement,” since prohibited buyers could just hire a straw buyer. Id. at 2269.
The four conservative justices, led by Justice Scalia, dissented, finding that the language of the GCA suggests that it principally regulates dealers with regard to prohibited buyers. A false statement about a straw purchase for someone who is not a prohibited buyer does not result in an unlawful act by a dealer, they held, and therefore should not be material.
A person who is facing possible criminal charges should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced criminal defense attorney. Michael J. Brown has represented west Texas defendants in state and federal criminal cases for more than two decades. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can assist you.
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