It’s hard being a middleman, especially if the federal government prosecutes the middleman for a legal transaction. Bruce Abramski, a former police officer, discovered this the hard way when he was misidentified as a bank robber. Although state prosecutors eventually dropped the investigation, federal prosecutors discovered a gun purchase receipt during a search of Abramski’s home. The receipt showed that Bruce had purchased a Glock 19 handgun for $400 on behalf of his uncle, Angel Alvarez.
Bruce had checked “yes” to a background check question asking if he was the “actual transferee/buyer” when he was purchasing the gun. Bruce then signed the form, acknowledging that it is a federal crime to make false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.” Lower courts dealt with the issue that Angel Alvarez was also a legal gun owner, casting doubt on whether the misstatement was legally relevant. The Supreme Court addressed the question of whether Congress intended to regulate third person gun purchases. In a 5-4 decision, the Court voted against Bruce, affirming his five year prison sentence.
Courts Should Not Fix Laws
As Justice Scalia said in his dissent, “The Court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner.” The majority of the Court does so because it sees a loophole that they feel should be closed. The law Bruce was prosecuted under makes it illegal for a person to make a material misstatement about the person’s attempted acquisition of a gun from a licensed dealer. The majority treated Bruce as an agent for his uncle, making the uncle the “person” who purchased the gun.
However, the background question, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer?” could be read as asking whether the person answering the question is the person paying for the gun, NOT whether the person purchasing the gun is an agent for another man or woman. Justice Scalia provided a perfect example: “So if I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say the store ‘sells’ the milk and eggs to me.” Answering the question this way does not interfere with Congress’s attempt to keep guns from “felons, fugitives, illegal drug-users and the mentally ill” because the actual gun owner is neither a felon nor mentally ill.
The fear is that if “agents” are allowed to purchase guns, then a felon could hire a delivery man to purchase the gun without having to go through a background check. That does seem like a clever workaround, but the law also requires there be a paper trail when a gun is transferred to another. Since Bruce had a receipt for the police to find, it’s clear that the law already has a method of tracking third person gun purchases.
Gun control proponents see this case as a victory. It is sad that any case involving firearms automatically devolves into an argument over the role of the Second Amendment. Gun control advocates might see this ruling as a win, but I see a man who is imprisoned without cause. When courts give federal laws more teeth than originally intended, we all lose.