Abramski v. United States

Issues: 

Does the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibit a lawful gun-purchaser from stating that they are the actual buyer when they are purchasing the gun for another person?

Oral argument: 
January 22, 2014

In the fall of 2009, Bruce Abramski purchased a handgun for his uncle and indicated on the required form that he was the “actual buyer” of the gun. Before Abramski made the purchase, the uncle sent Abramski a check to cover the cost of the gun. After buying the gun, Abramski transferred ownership of the firearm to his uncle at a local gun store in a different state. Both Abramski and his uncle are lawful gun owners. After the transfer, the government criminally prosecuted Abramski for making a false statement claiming he was the “actual buyer” of the gun. Abramski argued on appeal that the relevant provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 do not apply when the purchaser intends to resell the gun to another lawful purchaser. That argument was rejected by the Fourth Circuit, which held that the identity of the purchaser is always a fact material to the sale and that the gun dealer was required to record the identity of the intended owner. The United States argues for affirmation that the Gun Control Act prohibits Abramski from lying about the identity of the actual purchaser, which makes the sale illegal and undermines the purpose of the law. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will settle a circuit split regarding the lawfulness of this type of intermediary gun purchase. This decision will also establish whether an individual may ever buy a gun on behalf of another buyer.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties: 

When a person buys a gun intending to later sell it to someone else, the government often prosecutes the initial buyer under 18 U.S.C. § 922 (a)(6) for making a false statement about the identity of the buyer that is "material to the lawfulness of the sale." These prosecutions rely on the court-created "straw purchaser" doctrine, a legal fiction that treats the ultimate recipient of a firearm as the "actual buyer," and the immediate purchaser as a mere "straw man."

The lower courts uniformly agree that a buyer's intent to resell a gun to someone who cannot lawfully buy it is a fact "material to the lawfulness of the sale." But the Fourth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits have split with the Fifth and Ninth Circuits about whether the same is true when the ultimate recipient can lawfully buy a gun. The questions presented are:

  1. Is a gun buyer's intent to sell a firearm to another lawful buyer in the future a fact "material to the lawfulness of the sale" of the firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922 (a)(6)?
  2. Is a gun buyer's intent to sell a firearm to another lawful buyer in the future a piece of information "required ... to be kept" by a federally licensed firearm dealer under § 924 (a)(I)(A)?

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Facts

In the fall of 2009, Abramski offered to buy a firearm for his uncle, Angel Alvarez, because as a former police officer, Abramski could receive a discount at a local Virginia gun store. See U.S. v. Abramski, 706 3d 307, 310 (4th Cir. 2013). Three federally-licensed firearms dealers advised Abramski that he could purchase the gun in Virginia and transfer it with a licensed gun dealer in Pennsylvania, where his uncle lived. See id. Alvarez sent a check for $400 to Abramski with the note “Glock 19 handgun” on the memo line, and Abramski went to the local gun dealer and purchased the gun and several other items for his uncle. See id. at 311. At the time of purchase, Abramski was required to complete a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) form. See id. One of the questions asked Abramski if he was the “actual buyer” of the gun and explicitly stated that he was not the buyer if he was buying the gun for someone else. See id. Abramski checked the box “yes.” See id.

In the summer of 2010, Abramski was arrested on charges related to a bank robbery committed several days before the gun purchase. See id. In the process of searching Abramski’s residences for evidence related to those charges, the FBI found a written receipt from Alvarez recording the gun transfer. See id. Federal authorities never filed bank robbery charges against Abramski and the state charges were dismissed. See id. However, after the dismissal, a federal grand jury indicted Abramski for making a false statement on the ATF form claiming he was the actual gun purchaser in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) and § 924(a)(2), and making a false statement about information required to be kept by a firearms dealer in violation of § 924(a)(1)(A). See id. at 311-12. Abramski filed two motions to dismiss the charges, both of which were denied by the federal district court. See id. at 313. He then entered a conditional guilty plea as part of a plea bargain with the United States Attorney. See id. He then filed a limited appeal to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed the district court decisions. See id.Abramski then petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted on October 15, 2013. See Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

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Discussion

Abramski argues that the district court exceeded its statutory authority by applying the straw purchaser doctrine to this case because the ultimate purchaser is a lawful gun buyer. See Brief for Petitioner at 28. In response, the United States argues that it is irrelevant whether the ultimate purchaser is a lawful gun buyer and that straw purchases are clearly forbidden by the statutory text, not by judge-made doctrine. See Brief for Respondent at 21, 23.

CONGRESSIONAL PURPOSE

In support of Abramski, Congressman Steve Stockman, Robert E. Sanders (a former ATF official), and gun advocacy groups argue that Congress did not intend to require dealers to verify the identity of the actual gun purchaser, but only the identity of the transferee. See Brief of Amici Curiae Congressman Steve Stockman et al. in Support of Petitioner at 28-30. This group of amici further argues that requiring gun dealers to verify the identity of the actual owner undermines Congress’s goal of speedy background checks. See id. 

Also in support of Abramski, the National Rifle Association (NRA) argues that Congress did not intend to prohibit purchases by lawful gun owners. See Brief of Amicus Curiae NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund in Support of Petitioner at 7. The NRA group contends that Congress intended only to forbid sales to certain prohibited persons and that the current interpretation of the law incorrectly criminalizes behavior by lawful purchasers. See id. at 7-8.

In response, the United States argues that permitting straw purchases would frustrate the Gun Control Act’s recordkeeping and screening functions. See Brief for Respondent at 25. In the government’s view, allowing such purchases would force initial buyers/transferees to determine the lawfulness of a transfer. See id. These transferees, the government argues, are unlikely to be trained in federal firearms laws or to utilize the national background check database required of licensed federal firearms dealers. See id. The United States further argues that Congress intended the law to aid law enforcement in crime scene analysis by requiring thorough recordkeeping in all purchases, even those involving lawful purchasers. See id. at 27-28. The United States warns that when a straw purchaser and actual buyer are not well-acquainted, tracing often ends at the straw purchase, thereby hindering investigations. See id. at 29. The United States also argues that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has prohibited straw purchaser sales for at least twenty years and that such a prohibition is required by statute, not by judge- or agency-made policy. See id. at 35-36.

GUN OWNERSHIP RIGHTS

Robert Snellings, a California resident facing similar charges, argues that the prevailing interpretation of the Gun Control Act is too vague to be enforceable and violates the fundamental rights of individuals to own firearms. See Brief of Amici Curiae Robert Snellings and Ulysses Grant Early in Support of Reversal at 16. Snellings further argues that the current interpretation could have a chilling effect on private party gun sales. See id.

The United States maintains that the statute clearly identifies who is and is not a “lawful purchaser.” See Brief for Respondent at 29. Moreover, the United States rejects the claim that this case implicates Second Amendment concerns. See id. at 30. In the United States’ view, because Abramski’s uncle is not between 18- and 20-years-old, the Court need not resolve whether the federal prohibition on sales by licensed firearms dealers to 18- to 20-year-olds is consistent with the Second Amendment. See id.

STATE AUTHORITY

West Virginia and a group of twenty-five other states and Guam argue that prohibiting straw man purchases would interfere with the rights of states to regulate private intrastate transfer of firearms by forbidding them outright, while many states permit such transfers under certain circumstances. See Brief of Amici Curiae State of West Virginia, 25 Other States, and Guam in Support of Petitioner at 14-15. 

In response, the United States argues that such a prohibition enhances state authority by preventing an individual from using a straw purchaser in a different state to subvert the regulatory scheme of a particular state. See Brief for Respondent at 30, note 8.

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Analysis

The parties disagree on two key points: whether the Petitioner Abramski’s false statement was “material to the lawfulness of the sale” under § 922(a)(6) of the Gun Control Act, see Brief for Petitioner at 17; Brief for Respondent at 11, and whether the Petitioner’s plan to ultimately sell the gun to a third party is information “required to be kept” under § 924 (a)(1)(A). See Brief for Petitioner at 32; Brief for Respondent at 36.

“MATERIAL”

Both Abramski and the United States agree that Kungys v. United States controls the meaning of the term “material” in a criminal statute. See Brief for Petitioner at 17; Brief for Respondent at 12. A statement “is material if it ‘has a natural tendency to influence . . . the decision of’ the decisionmaking body to which it was addressed.” Kungys v. United States,485 U.S. 759, 70 (1988). However, while Abramski argues that his false statement was not material to the lawfulness of the sale, the United States contends that the statement was material. See Brief for Petitioner at 17; Brief for Respondent at 11.

IDENTITY OF THE TRUE BUYER

Abramski argues that although he falsely stated that he was the actual buyer of the gun, even if Abramski had indicated that he intended to sell the gun to his uncle, the sale of the gun would have been legal. See Brief for Petitioner at 17. Abramski points out that the government does not prohibit sales of firearms to individuals who plan on reselling it to another buyer, assuming the other buyer is a lawful one. See id. at 21−22. Consequently, the firearm dealer could have sold the gun to Abramski even if Abranski had informed the dealer that he intended to resell the gun to his uncle, and thus Abramski’s false statement was not material to the lawfulness of the sale. See id. at 23.  

In direct opposition, the United States contends that the dealer would not have been able to sell the firearm to Abramski’s uncle legally since dealers cannot sell handguns to people whom the dealer has a reasonable cause to believe resides in a different State. See Brief for Respondent at 29. The United States also maintains that the true identity of the firearm purchaser was Abramski’s uncle, not Abramski himself. See id. at 12. Significantly, the United States argues that the true identity of a firearm purchaser implicates the lawfulness of a sale. See id. The United States asserts that the individual to whom the original buyer intends to resell is the true buyer of the firearm, and the identity of this individual is material to the lawfulness of the sale. See id. at 14. Specifically, the United States contends that a firearm dealer must know the true identity of the buyer in order to correctly apply the statute’s requirements and prohibitions. See id.Therefore, the United States maintains that concealing a true buyer prevents a seller from recording the true buyer’s name, verifying the identity, and submitting this information for a criminal background check to approve the sale. See id.Finally, the United States emphasizes that Abramski’s liability stems from knowingly making a material false statement when buying the firearms, not from later reselling the gun to his uncle. See id. at 29. 

Relatedly, Abramski opines that the term “actual buyer” does not appear in the text of the Gun Control Act and thus he was not on notice of the alleged crime. See Brief for Petitioner at 30−31. Rather, the term appears in the ATF form required for gun purchases, and the question alone does not have legal force. See id. Accordingly, Abramski claims that his statement was not actually false; it was only false because of the court-created straw purchaser doctrine and the term “actual buyer,” which does not appear in the statute. See id. at 31. 

In response, the United States argues that any improper notice issues are not properly before the Court. See Brief for Respondent at 32-34. The United States maintains that this question is time-barred, and that even if the Court considered the question, it would not be a defense against making a false statement. See id.

STRAW PURCHASER DOCTRINE AND AGENCY LAW

Abramski contends that the use of the straw purchaser doctrine (where the original purchaser is considered a “straw” purchaser since they intend to resell the firearm to another individual, the true purchaser) is a court-created doctrine that goes beyond the plain text of the Gun Control Act. See Brief for Petitioner at 24. Abramski asserts that the federal courts originally created the doctrine to address a statutory loophole in the Gun Control Act—ineligible purchasers could use a “straw man” to buy a firearm. See id. at 25. Congress, however, later closed this loophole, and Abramski contends that Congress deliberately did not prohibit reselling to other lawful buyers. See id. at 25. Accordingly, Abramski asserts that using the straw purchaser doctrine to criminalize activity where the second purchaser is legal would impermissibly alter the Gun Control Act. See id. at 25, 28. Here, because the ultimate buyer was legal, Abramski claims that the straw purchaser doctrine should not apply. See id. at 29. 

In opposition, the United States contends that Abramski’s false statement is illegal regardless of any judicially-created doctrine. See Brief for Respondent at 21. Specifically, the United States argues that Abramski’s liability stems from the text of the Gun Control Act. See id. at 21. Accordingly, the United States maintains that prosecuting straw purchases does not impermissibly expand judicial power. See id. at 21. 

The United States also argues that agency law, not specifically the straw purchaser doctrine, incriminates making a false statement about the identity of the actual buyer. See id. at 16. The government maintains that the Gun Control Act has at least two purposes: to ensure that those who possess firearms are legally eligible, and that the identities of those in possession of firearms are known. See id. at 17. Dealers that do not maintain adequate records may become criminally liable. See id. at 24. The United States asserts that the government has an interest in keeping tabs on both illegal and legal buyers; for example, an eligible buyer may obtain a firearm that is later used in a crime. See id. at 28. Therefore, even if Abramski resold the firearm to a legal buyer, his false statement implicates the latter goal: identification of those who possess firearms. See id. at 17. The United States also points to the Gun Control Act’s tight regulations on sales to buyers who are physically absent as proof of Congress’s focus on the identity of the true purchaser of a firearm. See id. at 18. Furthermore, the United States asserts that a complete rejection of the straw purchaser doctrine would render sales to illegal purchases legal. See id. at 19−20. 

INFORMATION REQUIRED BY THE GUN CONTROL ACT

Abramski contends that the Gun Control Act does not require a dealer to obtain information about transfers to third parties. See Brief for Petitioner at 32. Abramski asserts that he was charged with making a false statement about the existence of an actual buyer, not about the name, age, or location of the buyer. See id. at 32. Since the Gun Control Act only requires the name, age, and location of the buyer, he contends that the government cannot prosecute him for not providing information about the intent to transfer the firearm to his uncle. See id. at 33−36. 

Conversely, the United States argues that the Gun Control Act mandates the name, age, and place of residence of the true buyer, not just the straw purchaser. See Brief for Respondent at 40. Therefore, Abramski made a false statement about information that firearm dealers are required to keep. See id. at 36.

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Conclusion

In this case, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify whether the Gun Control Act of 1968 forbids all straw purchases of firearms, regardless of whether the true buyer is a lawful purchaser or not. The Court will also decide whether the identity of the intended buyer is a fact material to the sale of a firearm. The Court’s decision will likely settle a circuit split regarding the lawfulness of this type of intermediary gun purchase. The decision will also establish what records a dealer is required to keep and whether an individual may ever buy a gun on behalf of someone else.

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