La Pierre Loses One!

At the Supreme Court, the NRA Finally Loses One

Anthony Kennedy joins the liberals to uphold a ban on “straw” gun purchases. A quirky piece of luck, or a sign of things to come?

Mark Wilson/Getty

The Supreme Court did something today I didn’t think was possible: It actually disagreed with the National Rifle Association. This was way more shocking than anything I saw in last night’s Game of Thrones finale.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected pleas by the NRA to essentially gut safeguards implemented to prevent the “straw” purchases of guns. Instead, the Court held (PDF) that if you lie about whom you are purchasing a firearm for, you will have committed a crime under federal law. It’s that simple.

In this case, defendant Bruce Abramski intentionally purchased a gun for his uncle but claimed he bought it for himself. He did this hoping to receive a discounted price for the gun by using his old police identification guard, although he had actually been fired from the job two years earlier.

Here’s Abramski’s problem. When you buy a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, you are required to fill out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) “Firearm Transaction Record.” One of the required questions asks: “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning:…If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.” (This language is boldfaced on the form to draw extra attention to it.)

Why is this information so important? Well, as the Court noted (PDF), the Gun Control Act “establishes a detailed scheme to enable the dealer to verify, at the point of sale, whether a potential buyer may lawfully own a gun.” Requirements include that the person buying the gun must, in general, present themselves in person at the dealer’s “business premises,” the dealer must verify the identity of the buyer by examining a photo ID, and the dealer “must submit (PDF) the information to the National Instant Background Check System (NICS) to determine whether the potential purchaser is for any reason disqualified from owning a firearm.”

In this case, it’s undisputed that Abramski lied when providing information on this federal form. Pretty cut and dry, right? Well, not to the NRA. The group filed a 37-page “friend of the court” brief arguing that the trial court’s conviction of Abramski should be overturned.

The NRA first asserted that since the defendant’s uncle was not prohibited by law from owning a gun, the defendant should in essence be given amnesty for lying on the federal form. But then the NRA went even further. It argued that the question of who is the “actual buyer” of the gun should be stricken from the form because it was not promulgated properly under federal law.

What does that really mean? The NRA wants to make it easier for straw purchasers to buy guns for others without fear of criminal prosecution, undermining legal safeguards to prevent criminals and the mentally ill from obtaining firearms. In fact, this isn’t the first time the NRA has tried this argument. Just last year, we saw the NRA lobby Congress in an effort to weaken a proposed law that would’ve increased penalties for straw purchasers of firearms.

Now, you can’t blame the NRA for trying. The group has been on a huge winning streak since 2008, when the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, struck down a Washington, D.C., law that banned the possession of firearms in homes within the city’s limits.

In that case, the Court essentially rewrote the Second Amendment by holding that each person has an individual right to possess firearms apart from service in a “regulated militia” even though that is the plain language of the text. As the Court explained: “It is clear that the Framers… counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.” (Anyone else alarmed by the idea that guns are considered by many on the right as way to ensure our “ordered liberty?”)

The NRA then had another big win two years later in McDonald v. City of Chicago (PDF). There, the Court expanded the Heller ruling beyond federal laws to state and local laws related to firearms. While that decision didn’t strike down Chicago’s strict gun safety laws, Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard Daly commented it would in essence make the law and others like it “unenforceable.”

So here we are a few years later. The NRA is no doubt feeling cocky. It won twice in the Supreme Court before. It has been able to prevent passage of universal background checks by Congress despite 90 percent of Americans supporting such a measure.

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And then boom, this happens. Today, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has to feel a lot like “Game of Thrones” Tywin Lannister sitting on the toilet thinking everything is going just great, only to be stunned by the sight of his son Tyrion staring at him holding a cross bow.

But before we celebrate too much, keep in mind that this is not a major decision by the Supreme Court. It is, however, a positive development to see conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy side with the four liberal members to reach this decision. With many more cases addressing state and federal gun laws expected to be heard by the Court in the next term, let’s hope this is a sign of things to come.