There have been rumors floating around DC that some kind of gun-control legislation may come back to the Senate later this year. And if this proves to be the case, it will probably involve another attempt to widen federal background checks to include private gun transactions, a move that was defeated in the gun control debate that broke out in 2013 after Sandy Hook. But a case was decided by the Supreme Court yesterday which, had the 5-4 vote gone the other way, might have made the whole background check system null and void.
I am referring to Abramski vs United States, which involved a Virginia resident, Bruce Abramski, who was convicted of committing a “straw” purchase of a Glock 19 because he answered ‘yes’ on the background check form 4473 when asked if the gun was being purchased for himself. In fact, he purchased the gun for his uncle, a resident of Pennsylvania, who sent him the money because Abramski was able to pay a discount price for the gun at a store near his own home. Abramski then took the gun to Pennsylvania, gave it to his uncle who gave him a receipt. The receipt turned up in Abramski’s possession when his home was searched by police investigating an unrelated offense and it was this receipt that led to his ultimate conviction for lying on the 4473.
Abramski based his appeal on the idea that he had not committed a “straw” purchase because his uncle could have passed a background check had the uncle chosen to purchase the gun. The statute covering the background check system, after all, was designed to keep guns out of the hands of people who could not pass a background check, which was not true in this case. Abramski also contended that it really didn’t matter what he did with the gun, as long as he could pass a background check at the point of sale.
The Court majority, in an opinion written by Elena Kagan, found that Abramski’s entire argument rested on only one true fact, namely that he was able to pass a background check at the point of sale. But to find in favor of Abramski’s larger argument, according to Kagan and the majority, “would undermine—indeed, for all important purposes, would virtually repeal—the gun law’s core provisions.” In other words, this case really was about whether or not the government could regulate firearm transactions at all, not just about the behavior of a particular individual at the time he purchased a gun.
The minority dissent, written by Scalia, was very interesting insofar as it dealt with the entire issue only in the most narrow terms. Rather than take on the larger question of whether the government has the right to regulate gun ownership, Scalia chose to argue about whether the 4473 (and the statute behind it) properly defined both the intent and the legal sanctions involved for making a false statement on the form. And even though Abramski’s appeal was joined by 26 states and, of course, the NRA, there was little in Scalia’s dissent that could give them cause for hope. I’m hardly surprised that Justice Scalia refused to challenge the government’s authority to regulate the ownership of small arms, because he acknowledged and approved such regulatory power in the Heller decision of 2008.
Last month the DC District Court upheld the District of Columbia’s tough gun registration law, aka Heller II. And now the SCOTUS upholds the law that created the whole background check system as it was first developed in 1968. On its own website, the NRA didn’t even bother to make a statement about the Abramski case, other than to link readers to a story about the decision in the, of all places, Washington Post! I don’t know the extent to which Court decisions necessarily reflect the prevailing mood, but if a new gun control bill comes back to Congress later this year, I’m not quite ready to declare it dead.