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Supreme Court enforces ban on straw purchase of guns, upholds challenge to political speech law

June 16, 2014 at 6:23 PM EDT
The Supreme Court ruled that if an individual intends to buy a gun for someone else, he or she must say so. In a separate ruling, the court unanimously supported a challenge to an Ohio law that makes it illegal to lie about a candidate’s position during a campaign. For a closer look at both cases, Jeffrey Brown talks to Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal.

GWEN IFILL: Two Supreme Court decisions today, one on purchasing firearms and the other involving political speech.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: As it happens, both cases involve when the truth must be told.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the federal government can enforce its ban on so-called straw gun purchases. Under that law, buyers must tell the truth when they are buying guns for someone else. In a separate ruling, the court looked at an Ohio law that bars the making of false statements about candidates in a political campaign. The court unanimously ruled that a legal challenge to the law can go forward.

Here to tell us more, as always, is Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal.”

Marcia, let’s start with the gun case first.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: This involved the purchase of a gun by a man for his uncle.

MARCIA COYLE: Right, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what happened?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Bruce Abramski was a former Virginia police officer, offered to buy the gun for his uncle who lived in Pennsylvania, because he thought he could get a discount on the price, given his law enforcement background. The uncle gave him the money. He wanted to buy a Glock.

Abramski went forward, bought the gun and later transferred it to his uncle in Pennsylvania. But the problem for Abramski is that when he bought the gun, he checked a box on the form that asked if he was the actual buyer. And the form made clear that, if you are buying the gun on behalf of someone else, you are not the actual buyer. You are what is known as a straw purchaser.

He was later arrested and convicted of making a material false statement under the federal Gun Control Act.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in this case, we should say, they were both legal…

MARCIA COYLE: Very important, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … gun owners, right?

MARCIA COYLE: They were both — they were both legally eligible to buy a gun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. All right, so the lower court upheld the conviction, and Justice Kagan today, writing for the majority, agreed.

She said, “Allowing this argument by the plaintiff to stand would virtually repeal the gun law’s core provision on background checks.”

MARCIA COYLE: Not only background checks, but documentation, record-keeping by gun dealers that is essential for a gun dealer to know who is — or to know who the buyer is in order to determine whether the sale is legal, and also critical to law enforcement that claim they need this information in order to trace guns that are committed in crimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kagan also wrote that only a numskull — I have to ask you this — a technical legal term, she’s using, right?

“Only a numskull would provide a paper trail for violating the law.”

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. Justice Kagan does write colorfully at times. She’s a match for the main dissenter in this case, Justice Scalia, who wrote for the chief justice and Justices Thomas and Alito.


MARCIA COYLE: He said, you look at criminal laws and interpret them by their ordinary meaning. If he gave his son $10 to buy milk and eggs at a store, they wouldn’t — the store wouldn’t claim that the actual buyer was Justice Scalia; it was his son.

And he said Congress never intended to make criminals out of people who were legally entitled to purchase guns.

JEFFREY BROWN: So he is just saying this is a misinterpretation of…

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. He said it may have been a compromise that Congress came to. It was dealing with a controversial area. But he still didn’t believe that the law as written would cover these two men in this particular purchase.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is a rare case. I was looking at the reaction to it from various sides. It is a rare case where the gun industry and gun rights advocates are actually on the losing side.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right.

In fact, I think something like 26 states came in on the side of Mr. Abramski, supporting him in this. So, it’s — as you can tell from the 5-4 decision, it wasn’t the easiest case for the justices to resolve.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it was Justice Kennedy, we often talk about as the swing vote, who went…

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. The decision divided them ideologically. Justice Kennedy at this point went over to the side of the more liberal justices.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, case number two is an Ohio law that says you cannot make a false statement about political candidates, a law that probably a lot of people don’t know exists, right?


MARCIA COYLE: That’s true. And believe it or not, something like 13 states have similar laws on the books.

The Susan B. Anthony List is an anti-abortion political action committee. They made it clear in 2010 that they were going it to run ads, some on a billboard, attacking then Congressman Steve Driehaus for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, although they were going to say on their billboards, “Shame on Steve Driehaus. He voted for taxpayer-funded abortions.”

He filed a complaint with the Ohio commission that enforces this law. They found probable cause that the Susan B. Anthony List was violating this law.

JEFFREY BROWN: He said he is opposed to abortion himself.

MARCIA COYLE: Right, exactly.

And he later — they both agreed to put it aside until after the election. He lost the election, withdrew his complaint. But the Susan B. Anthony List had filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. And so the issue before the court today was really whether that lawsuit could go forward. The lower court said, hey, this is over. The complaint was withdrawn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. There’s no case anymore, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Right. Exactly. And the Supreme Court today unanimously disagreed.


So the lower court is basically saying there’s no case anymore.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s right. The complaint had been withdrawn. The Susan B. Anthony List brought the appeal to the Supreme Court. And, today, Justice Thomas, writing for the entire court, the unanimous court, said that there is something to go forward here. He found that there is a credible threat of prosecution, that the Susan B. Anthony List planned to do these ads in the future, attacking other candidates, and other organizations also wanted to do similar ads.

The Ohio commission that enforces the law does continue to handle these complaints, say, 25 to 40 per year. And it’s very possible that the Susan B. Anthony List would be found again to have cause to violate the law.

And so right now, it means that the case is going to go back to the lower court and the Susan B. Anthony List gets a chance, an opportunity to prove that the law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and maybe it will come back to the Supreme Court on that basis, right?

MARCIA COYLE: It might very welcome back, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal,” thanks, as always.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jeff.