The Abramski case and Straw Purchases

Pro-Gun advocates were dealt a bit of a set-back yesterday when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a case that was seeking to roll back a provision of the GCA ’68 law, specifically the definition of a straw purchase. I’ll give you the short particulars of the case first:

Mr. Abramski buys a gun for his friend in PA, and his friend in PA later gives him the money to reimburse him for the gun. Mr. Abramski is picked up later on other charges (which were eventually dropped) but is charged with violating the law and committing a straw purchase. His defense was that because his friend was not a prohibited person then the transaction was not a straw purchase.

Now, here’s word for word what it says on the 4473 form regarding straw purchases:

Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.(See Instructions for Question 11.a.)

If you flip the form over to the back to read the instructions for Question 11.a, you get a pretty handy definition of what a straw purchase is or isn’t. Direct from the form again:

For the purposes of this form, you are the actual transferee/buyer if you are purchasing the firearm for yourself or otherwise acquiring the firearm for yourself (e.g., redeeming the firearm from pawn/retrieving it from consignment, firearm raffle winner). You are also the actual transferee/buyer if you are legitimately purchasing the firearm as a gift for a third party. ACTUAL TRANSFEREE/BUYER EXAMPLES: Mr. Smith asks Mr. Jones to purchase a firearm for Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith gives Mr. Jones the money for the firearm. Mr. Jones is NOT THE ACTUAL TRANSFEREE/BUYER of the firearm and must answer “NO” to question 11.a. The licensee may not transfer the firearm to Mr. Jones.

The form goes on to further elaborate on the fact that buying a gun as a legitimate gift is perfectly acceptable. However, if we look at the example detailed on 4473, you’ll note that it says nothing whatsoever about whether or not the 3rd party is a prohibited person. That’s because it doesn’t matter, at least according to the letter of the law. In fact, the example provided on the 4473 is almost an exact description of what Mr. Abramski did, so it’s really no surprise that the Court ruled the way it did. Would I have liked to see this case go another way? Certainly, but this was a long shot to begin with, and unlike Otis MacDonald or Dick Heller, Abramski wasn’t exactly and ideal vehicle for the case.

This is why court cases are so important, and why bad cases are so dangerous. We didn’t really lose anything in the Abramski case, and we also didn’t stand to gain very much. Still, it’s cases like this that make me shake my head and wonder what people are thinking.


  1. Technically, a man was honest to one degree and dishonest to another. He violated the law and the law as written was upheld. Is the law in need of being rewritten . . . probably, but in which direction?

  2. Whether one agrees with the law or not, I think it just makes one look stupid to ask the court to overturn a case that looks so cut and dry. Why not save our clout for a case that is winnable? If one wants to change the law, go to congress, not the court system.

    1. (I am a different Richard.) I am not sure why you would want to give the left a monopoly on trying to get settled law overturned. As I understand the case it was about one party having access to an LE discount. All steps of the process went through an FFL so there was a reasonable argument that there was no direct transfer and certainly no intent to circumvent background checks. I agree that he was not the most sympathetic defendant but it was far from a ridiculous case.

  3. I’ve seen some people freaking out about how this ruling suddenly turns gift giving into a straw purchase and makes private sales illegal. I read the whole thing and I don’t see wtf they’re talking about. I feel like I missed something.

  4. Part of the argument of the plaintiff was that the prohibition against “straw purchasers” was concocted in 1995 out of whole cloth by the ATF (which it was, as nothing like it appears anywhere in the language of the statute) and therefore plaintiff’s violation of the straw purchaser prohibition is not a violation as a matter of law.

    The SCOTUS majority agreed with the government that (effectively) it doesn’t matter what the statute actually says because the purpose of the 1968 Gun Control Act is to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous persons.

    Scalia’s dissent puts it best: “The majority’s purpose-based arguments describe a statute Congress reasonably might have written, but not the statute it wrote.”

  5. Most coverage of this case seems to omit the fact that the second transfer to Abramski’s uncle was performed through an FFL in Pennsylvania on a separate 4473. The fact that Abramski bought the weapon knowing that he would probably transfer it legally to his uncle does not make it a straw purchase in my mind. How long do you need to intend to keep a firearm before it becomes a “straw purchase”, if the next transfer is done through an FFL?

  6. I saw the case as a low risk case, from the Supremes’ perspective, to haggle over statutory interpretation and agency deference. It wasn’t a 2A case by any stretch – how many times did you see the 2nd Amendment mentioned in either opinion – and public policy would be impacted very little regardless of how the decision came down. Scalia wanted to make a point that legislation needs to be interpreted as written, and he came up short on this one. Notably, if you read the dissent, for 25 years, the ATF interpreted the GCA as Abramski argued it should be interpreted, until the 90’s when they broadened the language and issued the current form.

  7. Well done Caleb.

    There are more facts and some are a bit different than what you described, but they support your conclusions. Abramski should have gone to trial and risked a ruling on the law by a judge or a jury on the facts. Good chance he would have won or gotten the same sentence (probation) if convicted. While the Supreme Court didn’t do much damage to the cause as you note, it did turn the knob on the door by advancing a rationale which will be used later in construing gun control laws.

  8. Maggie Leber —

    The ONLY transfer that matters is the first one. PERIOD. At THAT transfer, his INTENT was to buy the gun _acting_as_his_uncle’s_agent_ (to fraudulently get his uncle the LEO discount he wasn’t entitled to). It was not a matter of “he would probably transfer it” — he KNEW he was buying it for his uncle, and had already accepted payment in advance.

    It says RIGHT ON THE FORM that that is a prohibited purchase. In the same place it says that a bona fide gift is 100% OK.

    Now, there WERE at least three legal ways he could have done this deal. He could have gotten an FFL. He could have sold his uncle a different gun he already owned, and bought the new Glock as a replacement. He could have foregone the LEO discount, had his uncle pay the FFL directly and have the gun shipped to an in-state FFL for physical transfer (just like you would buy a gun on the internet).

    He chose to do it the was the explanation on the Form 4473 says NOT to do it. So he got charged with lying on the form.

  9. Unfortunate… Abramski trying to save a relative/friend a few dollars… the Federal government trying to make someone into a bad guy. ATF has way too much time on their hands; dissolve that agency and let State and Local LEs use some common sense.

  10. What’s most galling is Scalia’s logic, which essentially allows that lying on the form would be impossible. He claims that if he sends his son with his money to buy milk and eggs at the story, no one with knowledge of “plain English” would claim that he had bought the milk and eggs. Yes, that’s true. But the point was not that the man exchanging the money for the item was “buying” the item, but whom he was buying it for.

    Or maybe I misunderstand Scalia’s point. But it sounds like the kind of sophism that would make lying on the form impossible, make straw purchases impossible.

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