The Supreme Court on Monday tightened restrictions on gun purchases, ruling that the government can be strict in trying to weed out potential "straw" buyers who plan to traffic the weapons.
The 5-4 ruling, which saw court's four Democrat-appointed justices joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in what was seen as the biggest test of gun rights during this term. The majority signaled their desire to strictly interpret gun laws when it comes to background checks.
"No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun's purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion.
The case involved a former police officer who thought he could get a discount on guns, and offered to buy one for his uncle. Bruce Abramski Jr. bought a Glock 19 and listed himself as the buyer, clearing a federal background check. He then transferred the gun to his uncle, again done through a federally licensed dealer, clearing a background check in compliance with state law.
But federal authorities said that violated the law, since he wasn't the true purchaser.
The ruling doesn't strike at the heart of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, but it does signal an interest on the part of justices to make sure the laws Congress has written governing background checks are interpreted strictly.
In a chiding dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the fact that Mr. Abramski was transferring the weapon was not "material to the lawfulness" of the sale.
Justice Scalia detailed the federal rules governing sales, and said under ATF guidelines if Mr. Abramski had bought the gun and given it to his uncle as a gift, he would have been in the clear; if he had bought the gun to sell, but didn't have a specific customer in mind, he would have been fine; and if he'd bought the gun to raffle to an unknown person, he also would have been clear.
But because he bought the gun intending to sell it to someone specific, the ATF deemed him a straw purchaser.
Justice Scalia said that sounded hypocritical.
"What the scenarios described above show is that the statute typically is concerned only with the man at the counter, even where that man is in a practical sense a 'conduit' who will promptly transfer the gun to someone else," he said.
Justices Kagan and Scalia sparred over real-world examples.
"If I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say that the store 'sells' the milk and eggs to me," he said.
Justice Kagan countered, saying it's ambiguous.
"If I send my brother to the Apple Store with money and instructions to purchase an iPhone, and then take immediate and sole possession of that device, am I the 'person' (or 'transferee') who has bought the phone or is he? Nothing in ordinary English usage compels an answer either way," she wrote.
Justice Scalia called that a "puzzling" distinction.
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