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Court tackles gun buys
Thursday, January 23, 2014
From AP and Bulletin reports
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday debated whether a Virginia man who bought a gun for a relative in Pennsylvania can be considered an illegal straw purchaser when both men were legally eligible to purchase firearms.
The justices heard an appeal from Bruce James Abramski Jr., a former police officer. Abramski bought a Glock 19 handgun in Collinsville, Va., in 2009 and transferred it to his uncle in Easton, Pa., who paid him $400.
Abramski was arrested after police suspected he was involved in a bank robbery in Rocky Mount, Va. No charges were filed in the bank robbery, but officials charged him with making false statements about the purchase of the gun.
Abramski answered “yes” on a federal form asking “Are you the actual transferee buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.”
Abramski’s lawyers told the high court that since both he and his uncle were legally allowed to own guns, the law shouldn’t have applied to him. “The only thing the straw purchaser doctrine in this case really accomplishes is to prohibit law-abiding citizens from buying guns for other law-abiding citizens, and that’s something that Congress expressly chose not to do,” said lawyer Richard D. Dietz.
The law’s purpose of being able to trace firearms would be undercut if the only record was of the straw purchaser, Justice Samuel Alito said.
“This legislation, the way Congress designed it, is not focused on sort of the end point,” said Dietz. “It’s not concerned about where a gun is actually going, who’s ultimately going to receive it. What Congress was concerned about was the starting point.”
For example, a gun buyer can purchase a weapon, walk out of a store and then immediately legally resell the weapon to a stranger without a background check, Dietz said. “And Congress understood that that’s how the process would work and that was part of the compromise. What Congress wanted was accurate information about the initial person who acquires the firearm so at least they can try to do that trace,” he said.
If true, Alito said, that makes Congress’ gun background check law meaningless. “What you’re saying is they did a meaningless thing. That was the compromise. They would do something that’s utterly meaningless,” Alito said.
Justice Department lawyer Joseph R. Palmore said accepting Abramski’s defense “would greatly impair the ability of ATF to trace firearms and to have an accurate record of who that first purchaser of the firearm was.”
The true buyer’s “name is clearly being asked because Congress cared very much about preventing anonymous sales of firearms. It cared very much about having a record of who that first buyer was,” he said.
A second local gun case is on hold pending the justices’ ruling, expected later this year.
According to previous reports, David Carson Haskins, who is in his late 50s, and James Marion Slate, 26, an officer in Rocky Mount, were indicted in July and charged with conspiring to make straw gun purchases.
According to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Brian McGinn, both Haskins and Slate agreed to plead guilty in that case — provided they are allowed to wait until after the Supreme Court has ruled in the Abramski matter.
When the indictments were handed down against Slate and Haskins in July, Haskins, identified in court documents as the owner of Southern Gun Inc. in Bassett, was charged with 18 counts of making false statements to a licensed firearms dealer in relation to the purchase of a firearm. Both Haskins and Slate were charged with one count of conspiracy to make straw purchases of firearms.
According to a copy of his plea agreement filed online, Haskins has agreed to plead guilty to two counts of making a false statement to a licensed firearms dealer in relation to the purchase of a firearm. The remaining charges against him would be dropped under the agreement.
Chief U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad agreed to postpone Haskins’ case until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Abramski case.
McGinn said that if the high court’s decision were to change Haskins’ mind about entering a guilty plea, he still could decide not to plead guilty, but the plea agreement and a statement of facts he signed could be used against him in court.