Bruce Abramski bought a handgun for his uncle, hoping to use his expired police officer ID to get a discount. When the seller asked, as required by law, if the gun was for him, Abramski said yes. C’mon, wouldn’t you have done the same for a bargain? Next time, don’t. Abramski was convicted for making a false statement “material to the lawfulness of the sale” and a false statement with respect to information required for the dealer’s records -- and today a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions.
On the surface, you might think the convictions were obvious. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issues regulations containing a questionnaire dealers must give to purchasers. One of the questions asks, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?” It then adds: “Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person.”
Lying makes a false statement, and the questionnaire has to be kept by the dealer. Case closed, right?
It's more complicated. Abramski’s uncle, Angel Alvarez, was eligible to own a gun, and would have been a legal purchaser had he shown up himself. Abramski argued to the Supreme Court that his false statement therefore wasn’t “material to the lawfulness” of the sale.
Then Abramski went further, contending that federal law is silent about so-called straw purchasers who buy guns on behalf of third parties. Similarly, Abramski claimed, he hadn’t told a lie relevant to the dealer’s records -- because he, Abramski, really was the buyer, even if not the intended owner.
Strengthening Abramski’s creative argument is the fact that the federal gun statute itself -- as opposed to the BATF questionnaire -- never mentions straw purchasers, speaking instead about the “person” or “transferee” acquiring the firearm.
The four liberal justices plus swing voter Anthony Kennedy rejected Abramski’s arguments. In an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, the court held that the true “person” or “transferee” mentioned in the statute is the final intended owner. In support of this interpretation, Kagan’s opinion cited “common sense,” which she called a “fortunate (though not inevitable) side-benefit of construing statutory terms fairly.”
Kagan explained, reasonably enough, that the whole point of getting information about the identity of the purchaser, checking his background and keeping records is to assess the person who will be owning and using the weapon. If Abramski had admitted he was buying the gun for his uncle, the purchase would not have gone forward. That, the court held, made his lie material. To construe federal law as uninterested in straw purchasers would be to turn the law itself into a straw man.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by the other conservatives. This Supreme Court term is rapidly becoming a proving ground for Scalia’s “textualist” method of statutory interpretation, a highly formal approach that minimizes the importance of context and claims to read legal language for what it says, not for its purpose.
Scalia said the statute should be interpreted in plain English. “If I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store,” he wrote, “no English speaker would say that the store ‘sells’ the milk and eggs to me.” It follows, for Scalia, that the “person” discussed in the gun laws is the purchaser standing at the gun counter, not the ultimate owner. The BATF might’ve been concerned about straw men, but Congress wasn’t.
Scalia pointed out that even the government considers the person at the counter to be the ultimate buyer in cases where the gun is purchased as a gift, for resale or as a raffle prize. (Yes, you read that right.) Why should Abramski, purchasing for his uncle, be any different?
If you read this case through the lens of your feelings about gun control, that’s sensible enough. After all, the decision went 5-4, and along roughly partisan lines, if you’re willing to account for Kennedy’s occasional liberal squishiness. No doubt the politics of guns helped push the liberals to a view of statutory interpretation that focuses on the law’s purpose, not its literal language.
But a political reading of the case should not obscure the equally important issue of how statutes should be read. In the past two weeks, the court has decided multiple cases involving the interpretation of federal law. In many, Scalia’s anti-contextual textualism has seemed to be ascendant. The development of the law is subtle, and the liberal justices have never formally embraced Scalia’s methods. Nevertheless, relentless textualism can breed habits of reading that reduce the importance of what a law is for and what it is trying to do.
The straw-purchaser decision should stand as a reminder to the liberal justices that, when the chips are down, they really do believe that the law’s purpose and context matter. It’s easy to say, as Scalia generally does, that the court should read literally and leave Congress to make any necessary fixes. In reality, however, Congress moves slowly if at all. The courts have a time-honored job of interpreting the law so that it makes sense and does what it was drafted to do.
If politics sneaks into statutory interpretation, so be it. Scalia’s promise of an apolitical interpretative process is illusory. Context and purpose are part of common-sense interpretation. Or at least they should be.
To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at email@example.com.