In 2008, the Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. In 2010, the Court extended Heller to apply to the states in McDonald v. Chicago. In those cases, the Court ruled that the federal and state governments could not ban all handguns or require guns in the home to be disassembled or disabled by a trigger lock, as those restrictions would burden individuals’ right to use those weapons for the lawful purpose of self-defense within the home. But the opinions did not invalidate other reasonable restrictions on firearm ownership, such as licensing requirements and restrictions targeting felons or the mentally ill.
This term, the Court considered the application of one of those permissible restrictions. In Abramski v. United States, petitioner Abramski offered to purchase a handgun for his uncle. The form that federal regulations required him to fill out (Form 4473) asked whether he was the “actual transferee/buyer” of the gun, and clearly warned that a straw purchaser (namely, someone buying a gun on behalf of another) was not the actual buyer. Abramski falsely answered that he was the actual buyer. Abramski was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) for knowingly making false statements “with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale” of a gun, and for making a false statement “with respect to the information required . . . to be kept” in the gun dealer’s records. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The issue before the Court was not whether the regulations were constitutional (as Heller and McDonnald clearly permit gun-licensing schemes), but whether Abramski could be convicted under the statute for his misrepresentation on Form 4473. In that regard, Abramski is not really a Second Amendment case; it is a case about statutory interpretation—but one in which Second Amendment rights are clearly implicated.
In a 5–4 decision authored by Justice Kagan, the Court held that regardless whether the actual buyer could have purchased the gun, a person who buys a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming that it is for himself makes a material misrepresentation punishable under 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6). According to the majority, although the statute regulates licensed dealers’ transactions with “persons” or “transferees” without specifying whether that language refers to the straw buyer or the actual purchaser, when read in light of the statute’s context, structure, and purpose, it is clear this language refers to the true buyer rather than the straw. Second, the majority rejected Abramski’s argument that his misrepresentation was immaterial because Abramski’s uncle, the true buyer, was in fact eligible to own a gun had he made the purchase himself. Because Abramski’s false statement prevented the dealer from insisting that the true buyer appear in person, provide identifying information, show a photo ID, and submit to a background check, the misstatement was material to the lawfulness of the sale. The Court concluded that because Abramski’s misrepresentation about the identity of the actual buyer concerned information required to be kept in the dealer’s records, falsely answering that question on Form 4473 violated § 922(a)(6).
Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Alito, dissented. Justice Scalia argued that Abramski’s false statement on Form 4473 was not “material to the lawfulness of the sale” since the truth—that Abramski was buying the gun for his uncle with his uncle’s money—would not have made the sale unlawful. Based on the plain language of the act, Justice Scalia argued that the fact that Abramski’s uncle had his nephew purchase the gun for him did not make the uncle “the ‘person’ to whom the dealer ‘s[old]’ the gun,” and he dismissed the majority’s reliance on the statute’s presumed “principal purpose” as far more expansive than the actual statute itself: “The majority’s purpose-based arguments describe a statute Congress reasonably might have written, but not the statute it wrote.”