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The former police officer bought a gun in Collinsville and transferred it to his uncle in Pennsylvania.
Bruce Abramski Jr.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The case of a former Roanoke police officer and his illegally purchased handgun is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it could bring clarity to a law intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
At the request of Bruce Abramski, the nation’s highest court agreed Tuesday to hear his appeal.
Abramski was convicted two years ago in Roanoke of breaking a federal law that prohibits the “straw purchase” of a gun — which involves a legal transaction by a buyer who then passes the weapon on, typically to someone not allowed to have it, such as a convicted felon.
But in Abramski’s case, the intended recipient was his uncle in Pennsylvania, a law-abiding citizen.
Since neither he nor his uncle was barred from owning guns, Abramski argues, his misrepresentation to a gun dealer about who was the actual buyer should not constitute a crime.
That question has created a rift among federal appellate courts, with three of the 11 rejecting Abramski’s argument and two accepting it.
“The lack of national uniformity is particularly troubling because the government processes an average of more than 45,000 gun applications every day,” Abramski’s attorneys, Rhonda Overstreet of Bedford and Richard Dietz of Winston-Salem, N.C., wrote earlier this year in a petition urging the Supreme Court to take the case.
Clarity is especially needed, the lawyers wrote, at a time when mass shootings have put pressure on prosecutors to enforce existing laws.
“That pressure makes prosecutors less willing to exercise their discretion to avoid the injustice that can result when conduct that is perfectly lawful in one state is a federal felony just a few states away,” the petition stated.
Abramski’s case is one of the few legal disputes in the Roanoke region to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which generally agrees to hear between 60 and 100 of the nearly 10,000 appeals it receives each year.
“It’s a really long shot when you do the math,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
While there’s clearly confusion about how the law should be interpreted, Tobias said, the facts of Abramski’s case reflect a “fairly narrow situation.”
Here’s what happened: Four years ago, Abramski’s elderly uncle, who lived in Pennsylvania, decided he wanted a gun to protect himself in his home.
When he called his nephew, a former Roanoke police officer, for advice, Abramski told him he could get a discount as a law enforcement officer if he bought the gun himself.
On Nov. 17, 2009, Abramski went to a gun shop in Collinsville and paid more than $2,000 in cash for a Glock 9 mm handgun and several other items.
As part of the background checks required of all federally licensed firearm dealers, Abramski filled out a form that asked, among other things, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form?”
Abramski checked “yes,” despite a warning on the form that he would not be the actual buyer if he planned to give or sell the gun to someone else.
After the purchase, Abramski transferred the gun to his uncle at a licensed dealer in Pennsylvania, completing the paperwork required by that state’s law.
Even though the straw purchase might not have included a convicted felon looking for a gun on the sly, federal prosecutors argued that Abramski nonetheless made a false statement during the transaction.
At the time, the case gained widespread attention because Abramski had been charged with robbing a bank in Rocky Mount. According to court documents, Abramski was going through financial and marital problems and told a fellow police officer he had “nothing to lose” and planned to kill a list of Franklin County sheriff’s deputies and Roanoke police officers.
But nothing ever came of those threats, and the bank robbery charge was later dropped for lack of evidence.
In 2011, Abramski, then a 27-year-old Franklin County resident, pleaded guilty to making false statements during a gun sale and was sentenced to six months of house arrest followed by five years of probation.
As a condition to his guilty plea, Abramski was allowed to appeal. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, rejected his arguments in January and let the conviction stand.
The decision by the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia and four other states, was similar to ones reached by the 6th and 11th Circuits. But the 5th and 9th Circuits have ruled the other way in similar cases, creating a patchwork method of enforcing the law across the country.
Such a split “exposes well-intentioned citizens, who are not prohibited persons, to
the danger of felony prosecution, in some jurisdictions
but not in others, for conduct that Congress did not criminalize,” the National Rifle Association argued on Abramski’s behalf in a friend-of-the-court brief.
After Tuesday’s decision by the high court to take up the case, more briefs will follow.
Oral arguments could be scheduled for late this year or sometime next year, Tobias said, with a decision to come by the end of the court’s session in June.
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