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 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.
The 5-4 ruling was written by Justice Elena Kagan.
"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," she said.
During oral arguments in the case in January, Kagan noted that without such a finding, "it does not matter whether the ultimate transferee was Al Capone or somebody else." And Justice Samuel Alito said it would render Congress' work "utterly meaningless."
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissent for the court's conservatives, not including Justice Anthony Kennedy, who provided the swing vote.
"The court makes it a federal crime for one lawful gun owner to buy a gun for another lawful gun owner," Scalia 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.
"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.
Gun control advocates were delighted. "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 Bracy Center to Prevent Gun Violence.