WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court sided with gun control groups and the Obama administration Monday, ruling that the federal government can strictly enforce laws that ban a "straw" purchaser from buying a gun for someone else.
The justices ruled 5-4 that the law applied to a Virginia man who bought a gun with the intention of transferring it to his uncle in Pennsylvania - even though the uncle is not prohibited from owning firearms.
The decision split the court along familiar ideological lines, though it has no direct bearing on the Second Amendment right to own guns. It settles a split among appeals courts over federal gun laws intended to prevent sham buyers from obtaining guns for the sole purpose of giving them to another person. The laws were part of Congress' effort to make sure firearms did not get into the hands of unlawful recipients.
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said the federal government's elaborate system of background checks and record-keeping requirements help law enforcement investigate crimes by tracing guns to their buyers. Those provisions would mean little, she said, if a would-be gun buyer could evade them by simply getting another person to buy the gun and fill out the paperwork.
"Putting true numbskulls to one side, anyone purchasing a gun for criminal purposes would avoid leaving a paper trail by the simple expedient of hiring a straw," Kagan said.
Her opinion was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often considered the court's swing vote, as well as liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the language of the law does not support making it a crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner. He was joined by the court's other conservatives - Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The case began after Bruce James Abramski Jr. bought a Glock 19 handgun in Virginia, in 2009 and later transferred it to his uncle in Pennsylvania.