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Monday, June 16, 2014

Supreme Court Rules On Gun Sales And Free Speech

Two decisions have been made today by the Supreme Court, regarding gun regulation and free speech.

Abramski v. United States is a case about the attempt by Congress to regulate “straw buyers,” who purchase guns for other people. Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus addresses the possibility of prosecuting false statements made during an election campaign.

NPR’s Carrie Johnson discusses the outcome of these cases with Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, what can the U.S. do about Iraq? Is cooperating with Iran to stop Sunni militants from taking Baghdad a good idea?

YOUNG: We'll pick that up. But first, with just two weeks to go until the end of their term, the Supreme Court started the week with 17 cases to go. Today they whittled it down to 14, deciding on three. We want to focus on two of those cases - one having to do with gun purchases, the other, free speech during political campaigns. NPR's justice respondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robin.

YOUNG: So the gun decision first. A divided court narrowly - 5 to 4 - supported a federal ban on straw purchases of guns. That's buying a gun for someone else. That is banned. And the Supreme Court upheld that. This is the case of a man who bought a gun in Virginia and gave it to an uncle in Pennsylvania. Tell us more.

JOHNSON: Yeah, the central figure in this case is a guy named Bruce Abramski. He's a former policeman who showed up at a gun store to purchase a Glock 19 handgun. When he went to the gun store, though, Robin, he filled out paperwork saying he was the buyer. He left his name and his address and contact information.

And the gun store owner or personnel there ran a background check on him, which came back clean, so he was able to leave the gun store with this glock and then sent it to his uncle a few days later. This is important, Robin, because for purposes of investigating crimes and finding quickly information about law enforcement emergencies, the police use those paperwork forms and go back to gun owners to find that information.

YOUNG: Well, we should be clear that the law forbids this straw purchase of a gun - transferring to someone else even if that other person would legally be able to own a gun. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, joined the liberal block in this 5-4 ruling. It was written by Justice Kagan.

And it's pretty clear, as you said, that the gun purchaser, Bruce Abramski, signed this form saying he was not transferring it to another person and he did. But beyond that, tell us more about the legal rationale. Is it purely about tracking gun sales?

JOHNSON: Well, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, in essence said to adopt Bruce Abramski's argument would mean eviscerating the gun control system the U.S. has had in place since 1968 with the Gun Control Act. And the purpose of the Gun Control Act is to keep guns out of the hands of felons, people addicted to drugs, the dangerous mentally ill and a few other categories. And the way that's regulated on the front end, Robin, is by mandating that the purchaser of the gun and the owner of the gun appear in person at a shop to buy the weapon and undergo background checks.

So to adopt Abramski's argument, namely that it's OK as long as the ultimate end owner of the gun is legally able to purchase that gun would just throw a wrench into the entire system for how the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, investigates these crimes. And in fact, the ATF submitted some language in this case indicating that more than half of all the gun trafficking investigations that they conduct involve straw purchases. So this - for the court to have ruled another way would have really thrown this entire system into upheaval.

YOUNG: Right. Well, let's move on to the free speech case because, in this case, the court ruled unanimously that the Susan B. Anthony List - that's an antiabortion rights group - can challenge a state law that bars people from making false statements about political candidates during the campaign. Now, this case came about in the 2010 campaign.

The group wanted to put up billboard ads attacking a candidate's stand on abortion. He said that they were falsely representing his stand. And so now the Supreme Court has said they can go back - the Susan B. Anthony List group - can go back and challenge that state law about making false statements. Tell us more.

JOHNSON: OK, so the court ruled here, an early stage in this case, it didn't offer an underlying judgment about this Ohio elections law. Although, it certainly casts some doubt on whether it's constitutional in Ohio and in many other states that have these sorts of laws on the books.

What it essentially found was that the Susan B. Anthony List had suffered an injury, which allowed the lawsuit to go forward. Lower courts have thrown out the case saying Susan B. Anthony had not suffered enough of an injury to continue with the lawsuit.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, and the liberal - as we said, the liberals on the court sided with Justice Clarence Thomas who wrote the decision. Did they also agree that this ban on false speech in campaigns would be chilling on free speech or do they maybe hope that the law's upheld?

JOHNSON: The majority, which was unanimous, raised some questions about the underlying law, but they didn't offer a judgment on that point yet.

YOUNG: OK, well, third opinion today allows bondholders to use American courts to force Argentina to reveal where it has property. That will make it easier to collect those bondholders' debts from Argentina. And, as we said, many more to go - contraceptive coverage, recess presidential appointments, abortion clinic buffer zones - cases still before the courts. So, Carrie Johnson, you still will be welcome here to talk about them. Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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