XDM 3.8 Compact, 9mm pistol. (Aaron Hayes)
Most Americans agree that stronger laws are needed to reduce the 30,000 deaths caused by guns each year—especially after the shooting deaths of 26 first-graders and teachers in Newtown.
The National Rifle Association and the rest of the gun lobby disagree. They argue that the solution (besides putting more guns in the hands of more people) is to “enforce the laws on the books” to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. If anyone thought that argument was anything more than a self-serving dodge, two pending U.S. Supreme Court cases make the gun lobby’s hypocrisy undeniable.
This term, the Supreme Court will determine whether two crucial gun laws—the ban on gun possession by domestic-violence offenders and the ban on straw purchases—can be fully enforced to prevent dangerous people from getting guns. In both cases, the gun lobby is fighting to make it harder to enforce existing laws and make it easier for dangerous people to obtain guns.
On Jan. 15, the Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Castleman, in which the gun lobby argued that some domestic offenders should be entitled to possess guns. Even though federal law prohibits gun possession by persons convicted of domestic-violence misdemeanors, James Castleman, a gun trafficker and convicted domestic abuser, is arguing that he is entitled to possess a gun. The Gun Owners of America and other gun lobbies agree. Deriding some assault-and-battery crimes as “minor,” they contend that convicted domestic abusers have a right to possess guns unless they are convicted under laws that require “violent” physical force. The gun lobby’s position would result in domestic abusers becoming entitled to possess guns in most states. And social science proves that many victims of abuse—often women—would be killed as a result.
The Supreme Court is also considering Abramski v. United States. While Castleman seeks to create a gaping loophole in our domestic-violence gun laws, Abramski could open a vast straw-purchase loophole. At stake is the ability of gun buyers to lie-and-buy and subvert the Brady background check system. Under existing law, federally licensed dealers must require the gun buyer to produce identification and undergo a criminal background check. It is illegal to make straw purchases—to buy a gun for someone else—and to lie on the federal gun purchase form by stating that you are the actual buyer when you are really buying for someone else.
The straw-purchase law is the heart of the Brady background check system. Conducting a background check on someone before he buys a gun is the best way to enforce the “laws on the books,” keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Background checks have prevented more than 2 million gun purchases by prohibited persons. Straw purchases undermine the entire framework of our federal gun laws—they supply guns without a background check, allowing prohibited purchasers to access guns, and provide no record for law enforcement to trace if a gun is used in crime. Straw purchases are one of the primary ways criminals get guns, and straw-purchased guns have been used to shoot countless police officers and civilians.
In Abramski, the NRA argues that it should not be a crime for a gun purchaser to buy a gun for someone else or to lie on the form by stating that he is the actual purchaser—unless the person he is buying for is a prohibited purchaser. The NRA scheme would completely undercut the purpose of the straw-purchase laws—to reduce the supply of guns to criminals—since straw purchasers may not know whether the ultimate buyer is a felon, a domestic-violence offender or is otherwise prohibited. Furthermore, a person with criminal intent but with a clean record could obtain guns through straw purchasers without a record, so law enforcement could not trace the gun to them following the crime.
The gun lobby’s position in these cases makes it clear that their true concern is not about protecting the American people. Nor is it about the Second Amendment or the rights of law-abiding, responsible people to obtain or use guns. These two cases are not about taking away Second Amendment rights or banning guns. These issues go to the very heart of our gun laws: prohibiting dangerous people from obtaining guns and enforcing the existing background check system.
The gun lobby is not speaking for gun owners, either. Responsible gun owners don’t want to arm someone who beats a spouse. In fact, 87 percent of NRA members agree with keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, and more than 70 percent of NRA members and 80 percent of gun owners favor criminal background checks to keep guns from dangerous people. Law-abiding gun owners don’t want or need somebody to buy guns for them. If anything, firearm owners enjoy a trip to the gun store.
There is one overriding rationale for the gun lobby’s positions: to increase the sales of guns for gun manufacturers and protect their profits.
Don’t be fooled by the gun lobby’s claim that all we need to do is enforce the gun laws on the books and keep criminals from getting guns. Their legal briefs suggest otherwise.
Jonathan Lowy, executive director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Elizabeth Burke, managing attorney for the Brady Center’s Lawyers for a Safer America, filed amicus briefs in both U.S. Supreme Court cases on behalf of the center. This column first appeared in The National Law Journal, an affiliate of the Connecticut Law Tribune.