Abramski v. United States
573 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Abramski offered to purchase a gun for his uncle. Form 4473 asked whether he was the “actual transferee/buyer” of the gun and warned that a straw purchaser (buying a gun on behalf of another) was not the actual buyer. Abramski falsely answered that he was the actual buyer. Abramski was convicted for knowingly making false statements “with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale” of a gun, 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(6), and for making a false statement “with respect to the information required ... to be kept” in the gun dealer’s records, section 924(a)(1)(A). The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the misrepresentation was material and rejecting Abramski’s argument that federal gun laws are unconcerned with straw arrangements. While the law regulates licensed dealer’s transactions with “persons” or “transferees” without specifying whether that language refers to the straw buyer or the actual purchaser, read in light of the statute’s context, structure, and purpose, the language clearly refers to the true buyer rather than the straw. The law establishes an elaborate system of in-person identification and background checks to ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of felons and other prohibited purchasers and imposes record-keeping requirements to assist authorities in investigating serious crimes through the tracing of guns tor buyers. The provisions would mean little if they could be avoided simply by enlisting the aid of an intermediary to execute the paperwork. The statute’s language is thus best read in context to refer to the actual rather than nominal buyer. While Abramski’s uncle could, possibly, have legally bought a gun for himself, 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 dealer could not have lawfully sold the gun had it known that Abramski was not the true buyer, so the misstatement was material to the lawfulness of the sale.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

ABRAMSKI v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 12–1493. Argued January 22, 2014—Decided June 16, 2014

Petitioner Bruce Abramski offered to purchase a handgun for his uncle. The form that federal regulations required Abramski 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 for knowingly making false statements “with respect to any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale” of a gun, 18 U. S. C. §922(a)(6), and for making a false statement “with respect to the information required . . . to be kept” in the gun dealer’s records, §924(a)(1)(A). The Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Held:

     1. Abramski’s misrepresentation is material under §922(a)(6). Pp. 7–22.

          (a) Abramski contends that federal gun laws are entirely unconcerned with straw arrangements: So long as the person at the counter is eligible to own a gun, the sale to him is legal under the statute. To be sure, federal law regulates licensed dealer’s transactions with “persons” or “transferees” without specifying whether that language refers to the straw buyer or the actual purchaser. But 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. Federal gun law establishes an elaborate system of in-person identification and background checks to ensure that guns are kept out of the hands of felons and other prohibited purchasers. §§922(c), 922(t). It also imposes record-keeping requirements to assist law enforcement authorities in investigating serious crimes through the tracing of guns to their buyers. §922(b)(5), 923(g). These provisions would mean little if a would-be gun buyer could evade them all simply by enlisting the aid of an intermediary to execute the paperwork on his behalf. The statute’s language is thus best read in context to refer to the actual rather than nominal buyer. This conclusion is reinforced by this Court’s standard practice of focusing on practical realities rather than legal formalities when identifying the parties to a transaction. Pp. 7–19.

          (b) Abramski argues more narrowly that his false response was not material because his uncle could have legally bought a gun for himself. But Abramski’s false statement prevented the dealer from insisting that the true buyer (Alvarez) appear in person, provide identifying information, show a photo ID, and submit to a background check. §§922(b), (c), (t). Nothing in the statute suggests that these legal duties may be wiped away merely because the actual buyer turns out to be legally eligible to own a gun. Because the dealer could not have lawfully sold the gun had it known that Abramski was not the true buyer, the misstatement was material to the lawfulness of the sale. Pp. 19–22.

     2. Abramski’s misrepresentation about the identity of the actual buyer concerned “information required by [Chapter 44 of Title 18 of the United States Code] to be kept” in the dealer’s records. §924(a)(1)(A). Chapter 44 contains a provision requiring a dealer to “maintain such records . . . as the Attorney General may . . . prescribe.” §923(g)(1)(A). The Attorney General requires every licensed dealer to retain in its records a completed copy of Form 4473, see 27 CFR §478.124(b), and that form in turn includes the “actual buyer” question that Abramski answered falsely. Therefore, falsely answering a question on Form 4473 violates §924(a)(1)(A). Pp. 22–23.

706 F. 3d 307, affirmed.

     Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas and Alito, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding
A person who buys a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming that it is for himself makes a material misrepresentation in violation of federal law.
Facts
Upon learning that his uncle wanted to purchase a new 9mm Glock handgun, Bruce Abramski offered to purchase it for him because he could get a discount. In purchasing the firearm, Abramski checked a box on a form distributed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") indicating that he was not buying the gun on behalf of another person.

After Abramski was arrested on suspicion of committing bank robbery, police searched his home and found a receipt indicating that Abramski sold the firearm to his uncle for $400. The police charged Abramski with knowingly making a false, material statement on an ATF form, in violation of federal law, because he did not disclose that he was purchasing the gun for his uncle.

Procedural History

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit - 706 F.3d 307

Affirming the district court's denial of the defendant's motions to suppress evidence and motions to dismiss.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia - 778 F. Supp. 2d 678

Denying the defendant's second motion to dismiss the indictments.

Attorneys
  • Richard D. Dietz
  • Joseph R. Palmore

Opinions

Majority

  • Elena Kagan (Author)
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Stephen G. Breyer
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Dissent

  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • John G. Roberts, Jr.
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

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