Monday, June 16, 2014

Kagan v. Scalia: Which Analogy Most Correctly Applies to Congress's Statute on "Straw Purchasers?"

     Can a qualified citizen, who is not specifically prohibited by law, legally purchase a firearm for another qualified citizen?  The Supreme Court ruled on Monday, yes.  In what are called straw purchases, petitioner challenged his arrest in violation of the law because he was legally buying a firearm with money his uncle, who can legally purchase a weapon but believed since the petitioner was a former law enforcement official, he could get a discount, gave him to purchase the weapon.  The petitioner, Mr. Abramski, technically falsified a form required by law when purchasing a firearm by saying that he was the buyer of the weapon.  This issue is where the spat between the majority and dissent took place.

     Though Mr. Abramski was physically purchasing the weapon, as Justice Scalia called him in his dissenting opinion, the "man behind the counter," he was not purchasing the weapon for himself.  The reason Congress legislated on the issue of straw purchases, as Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, contends: "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."  However, Justice Scalia wrote in his dissenting opinion: "And no provision of the Act prohibits one person who is eligible to receive and possess firearms (e.g., Abramski) from buying a gun for another person who is eligible to receive and possess firearms (e.g., Abramski’s uncle), even at the other’s request and with the other’s money."

     The majority and dissent disagreed specifically over one analogy relating to this case, "So 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," Justice Scalia wrote.  Justice Kagan, in a footnote refuting this point, stated, "But try a question more similar to the one the gun law’s text raises: 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."   Responding in a footnote of his own, Justice Scalia wrote,  "The majority makes the puzzling suggestion that the answer would be different if the sale involved consumer electronics instead of groceries... But whether the item sold is a carton of milk, an iPhone, or anything else under the sun, an ordinary English speaker would say that an over-the-counter merchant 'sells' the item to the person who pays for and takes possession of it, not the individual to whom that person later transfers the item."

     Take two more analogies:
Suppose a would-be purchaser, Smith, lawfully could own a gun. But further suppose that, for reasons of his own, Smith uses an alias (let’s say Jones) to make the purchase. Would anyone say “no harm, no foul,” just because Smith is not in fact a prohibited person under §922(d)? We think not. Smith would in any event have made a false statement about who will own the gun, impeding the dealer’s ability to carry out its legal responsibilities. So too here.

     Then Justice Scalia offers his own set of scenarios:
Consider the following scenarios in which even the Government regards the man at the counter as the “person” to whom the dealer “sell[s]” the gun...Guns Intended as Gifts...Guns Intended for Resale...Guns Intended as Raffle Prizes.

     In each scenario Justice Scalia provided, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which is responsible for enforcing the statute in question, considers the "man at the counter" as the true purchaser leading Justice Scalia to infer, "If the statute’s requirements were 'render[ed] meaningless' by treating Abramski rather than his uncle as the true purchaser, then they would be every bit as meaningless in the scenarios just described."

     The Court split on party lines in Monday's decision with Justice Kennedy serving as the pivotal swing vote.  Petitioner (and the dissent) believes Congress was only concerned with "the man at the counter" as the statute is silent while the majority believes, "The revised §922(d) [part of the statute at question] prevents a  private person from knowingly selling a gun to an ineligible owner no matter when or how he acquired the weapon: It thus applies not just to a straw purchaser, but to an individual who bought a gun for himself and later decided to resell it."  Ultimately, Mr. Abramski lied on his government form and "thwarted application of essentially all of the firearms law’s requirements. We can hardly think of a misrepresentation any more material to a sale’s legality," wrote Justice Kagan.  Either way, Monday's decision was a riveting piece of legal discussion.   


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