For most people, and five Supreme Court justices, there is a straightforward answer to the question, "Can I lie on the federal form I must sign in order to legally purchase a firearm in the United States?" (NO.) For four other Supreme Court justices (just guess), this is a more complicated issue.

The case the Court decided this morning involved an unlucky man named Bruce Abramski, an ex-cop who was a suspect in a bank robbery. In the course of investigating him for that, police found he'd sold a firearm to his uncle shortly after purchasing it from a gun store. The uncle was legally qualified to buy a gun himself, it seems; it's just that Abramski wanted to pass on his ex-cop's discount. Sadly for Abramski, on the form they make you sign to purchase a firearm, the following question appears:

Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form? Warning: You are not the actual buyer if you are acquiring the firearm(s) on behalf of another person. If you are not the actual buyer, the dealer cannot transfer the firearm(s) to you.

Abramski checked "Yes," even though he intended to transfer the gun to his uncle. The government charged him with making false statements on the form under the Gun Control Act.

Dumb, right? Well, when he was convicted of the crime of lying on that form, Abramski pointed out that at least one federal court of appeal had ruled that "straw purchasers" like himself are not lying "in a material way." In other words: since the ultimate gun owner (the uncle here) was qualified to own a gun anyway, there was no real problem with his lying on the form. The question was only there to prevent the criminal and the insane from purchasing guns through an intermediary.

The Supreme Court upheld Abramski's conviction 5-4. Justice Kagan points out, writing for the majority, that that argument doesn't quite fly when so much of America's piddling gun control laws involve identity verification and background checks of the purchaser. Some of those rules are there to prevent the unqualified from purchasing, yes; but another goal is to create a paper trail for law enforcement. As she puts it,

Abramski's view would thus render the required records close to useless for aiding law enforcement: Putting true numbskulls to one side, anyone purchasing a gun for criminal purposes would avoid leaving a paper trail by the simple expedient of hiring a straw.

"True numbskulls" is a lovely old-timey way of putting it, no? And her position makes things relatively simple, allied with common sense: don't lie to the government when you want to purchase a gun, full stop.

But then there is the other side of the bench. Scalia, joined by fellow sad pandas Roberts, Thomas and Alito, wrote the dissent. Scalia appears to concede that the law would be much less effective if people could just send in straw purchasers for their guns. But, and you nerds knew this was coming: the "plain language [of the statute] simply does not reach" straw purchasers. The law, Scalia says, only covers the "man at the counter," since it only covers the person to whom the firearm is "sold." And, Scalia adds:

... if I give my son $10 and tell him to pick up milk and eggs at the store, no English speaker would say that the store "sells" the milk and eggs to me.

Scalia fails to mention that no English speakers would ever suggest that the purchase of milk and eggs is equivalent to the purchase of a deadly firearm, either. Which is why there is no "Milk and Eggs Control" statute at the center of a heated public debate and regulation, at this point in history. But hey, a man can dream!

Of course, Scalia never mentions that the plain language on the form presented to gun purchasers also asks them to certify that all answers they give are "true, correct, and complete." And that he is basically saying they should ignore that language even when their lie is a pretty clear-cut one.

Good plan, Scalia. Too bad you lost this one?

[Image via Shutterstock.]