WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court dealt a rare blow to the gun lobby Monday by ruling that purchasers must report when they are buying firearms for other people.
The 5-4 decision upheld two lower courts that had ruled against so-called straw purchasers, even though the justices acknowledged that Congress left loopholes in gun control laws passed in the 1960s and 1990s.
For gun purchasers to be allowed to buy from licensed dealers without reporting the actual final owners of the firearms, the justices said, would make little sense.
"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," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the slim majority.
Kagan, a New Yorker who acknowledged during her 2010 confirmation hearings that she was not very familiar with guns, was opposed by four conservative justices, led by Justice Antonin Scalia — who famously has taken her hunting on several occasions.
"No piece of information is more important under federal firearms law than the identity of a gun's purchaser — the person who acquires a gun as a result of a transaction with a licensed dealer," Kagan said.
During oral arguments in the case in January, she had noted that without such a finding, "it does not matter whether the ultimate transferee was Al Capone or somebody else."
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Scalia's dissent for the court's conservatives — not including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the swing vote — was scathing.
"The court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner," he said. "Whether or not that is a sensible result, the statutes Congress enacted do not support it."
The straw purchaser in the case was a former Virginia police officer who bought a Glock 19 handgun for his uncle in Pennsylvania. Both were legal gun owners. But the purchaser, Bruce James Abramski, filled out a federal form indicating that he was the "actual buyer" of the firearm.
His attorney, Richard Dietz, argued that a compromise reached in Congress decades ago was meant to focus only on the initial buyer. Even if it did intend to identify the ultimate purchaser, he said, Abramski didn't violate the law because his uncle was licensed to own guns.
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"Congress didn't use terms like 'true buyer' or 'true purchaser' or 'actual buyer' because they are not concerned about the ultimate recipients of firearms or what happens to a gun after it leaves the gun store," Dietz said.
The Justice Department, seeking to uphold the two lower court rulings against Abramski, argued that Congress always sought to identify the ultimate gun purchasers but did not want to intrude on private transactions.
But Scalia ridiculed the majority's assertion that under federal firearms laws, the uncle -- not Abramski — was the true purchaser of the gun. "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," he said.
Gun control advocates were delighted with the decision. "This is a very big and very positive decision that will save lives by keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
It was the second ruling from the conservative court this term that went against the gun lobby. In March, the justices ruled unanimously that a federal law intended to keep guns away from domestic violence offenders can apply even if their crime was nothing more than "offensive touching."