Suppose you are an outdoorsman in a small town looking for a particular model of shotgun. You can't find it in your market. But you happen to learn in a conversation with a cousin in another town that the gun is available there at a good price. The cousin offers to buy it and send it to you if you will send him a check to cover the purchase. Both you and your cousin are good citizens entitled by law to buy a gun. Would it surprise you to learn that if your cousin buys the gun for you, it's a crime?
So says the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 opinion this week.
The case had to do with so-called "straw" purchases of firearms. A federal law prohibits purchases of firearms by a person who is not the "actual buyer." A form that is signed during the purchase/background check part of the transaction requires the buyer to affirm that he or she is the actual end user.
The intent of the provision is to prevent someone from buying a gun or guns and transferring it/them to someone who is not legally entitled to buy or possess a firearm - a gang member with a felony record, someone who has been adjudicated mentally ill, or someone who has exceeded the limit on gun purchases in a single month, for instance.
The purpose of the law - keeping guns out of the hands of criminals or others who have no business owning them - is legitimate. But the effect in some cases is to turn honest, well-intentioned people into criminals. Society is not served by that.
The case that went before the Supreme Court involved a former Roanake, Va., police officer named Bruce Abramski who used his police identification to buy a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle at a discount. His uncle sent a check for $400 with "Glock 19 handgun" written on the memo line and that, it turns out, was enough to convict Abramski, who received five years of probation.
The four conservative members of the court, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented to the finding that this transaction was illegal, arguing that by "actual buyer" the law simply means that the person buying the gun must be who he says he is. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is almost always the swing vote in close cases, went with the liberals on this one, agreeing that purchases such as Abramski's violate the true intent of the law.
Frankly, given the language of the law and what appears on the purchase forms, we think the majority interpretation is probably correct statutorily. But the point is it shouldn't be.
To that end we think a revision of the language of the law by Congress is in order. It needs to be reworded to make clear that the forbidden activity is the purchase of a gun by a person who intends to transfer it to someone not legally entitled to have it.
While we agree that in this particular case, a retired police officer probably should have known better, clearly the law as presently worded and inconsistently enforced is vague enough to entrap well-meaning, law-abiding citizens. Congress would do well to revise the law in light of this court decision.