Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. Last summer he logged 22,000 miles while blogging about his cross-country road trip for Mother Jones. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Supreme Court to NRA: No, People Can't Lie to Buy Guns

| Mon Jun. 16, 2014 3:45 PM EDT

Gun control lives! In a 5-4 decision Monday, the high court knocked down a National Rifle Association-backed challenge to elements of a 1968 statute that criminalizes lying about the intended owner of a firearm. The law—which basically says that you can't claim you're buying a gun for yourself when you're really buying it for someone else—has been used by the Department of Justice to target gun traffickers, who routinely employ third parties known as straw purchasers to bypass the federal background check system.

In the case, Abramski v. United States, the NRA and other gun groups argued that lying about who would end up with the gun shouldn't matter if the intended owner could legally own one—and more broadly, that the entire prohibition on straw purchasing was itself a "legal fiction" with no real basis in the law itself. Twenty-six states signed on in support, arguing that the law infringed on their rights to regulate gun sales.

In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, who was joined by the three other liberal-leaning justices and the swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, emphatically disagreed: "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."

The challenge arose out of a case of mistaken identity. Angel Alvarez sent his nephew, Bruce Abramski, a check for $400 with instructions to purchase and deliver to him a Glock 19 handgun. Ambraksi walked into a firearm dealership in Rocky Mount, Virginia, two days later, passed a background check, and signed a form indicating that he was the intended owner of the firearm. When investigators later misidentified Abramski as a suspect in a bank robbery (he wasn't charged), federal investigators found a copy of the receipt revealing that he had purchased the Glock for his uncle—meaning he'd lied on a federal form to purchase the gun.

In lower courts, Abramski argued that his straw purchase was immaterial because his uncle was legally empowered to own a gun and could have passed a background check. But Abramski then made a far larger argument—that the 1968 gun control law really only governs the initial purchase, and had nothing to do with straw purchases. According to the NRA, federal regulators simply pulled the straw purchasing prohibition from thin air. Kagan wanted nothing of it:

The provision thus prevents remote sales except to a small class of buyers subject to extraordinary procedures—again, to ensure effective verification of a potential purchaser's eligibility. Yet on Abramski's view, a person could easily bypass the scheme, purchasing a gun without ever leaving his home by dispatching to a gun store a hired deliveryman. Indeed, if Abramski were right, we see no reason why anyone (and certainly anyone with less-than-pure motives) would put himself through the procedures laid out in §922(c): Deliverymen, after all, are not so hard to come by.

Abramski envisioned a federal gun control law that "would stare myopically at the nominal buyer while remaining blind to the person exiting the transaction with control of the gun," Kagan argued.

Monday's decision is good news for the Justice Department. The law stands. Now the government just has to find a way to enforce it.

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Eric Cantor Loses GOP Primary. Wait, What!?

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 9:26 PM EDT

Buckle your seatbelts, K Street: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is looking for work.

On Tuesday, in the biggest political upset of recent memory, Cantor, the House majority leader who was considered next-in-line to be House speaker, lost his Republican primary by double digits to David Brat, a college professor he'd outspent down the stretch by a factor of 12.

It was never supposed to be close. After Cantor flooded the district with nearly $1 million in advertising and direct mail, a leaked internal poll showed the incumbent with a 34-point lead over Brat. Cantor became the first majority leader to lose a primary in 115 years.

So who is Brat?

  • A libertarian economist—but not a Randian. Per Betsy Woodruff's January profile in National Review:

He chairs the department of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College and heads its BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism program. The funding for the program came from John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T (a financial-services company) who now heads the Cato Institute. The two share an affinity for Ayn Rand: Allison is a major supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Brat co-authored a paper titled "An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand." Brat says that while he isn't a Randian, he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.

According to his Rate My Professors page, he is "SOLID," "humorous," and "hot":

  • An immigration hardliner. For months, the only interesting thing about the race was its impact on Cantor's public comments on immigration reform. Brat considered Cantor a sellout for tepidly supporting some sort of comprehensive immigration reform, and Cantor responded by taking credit for killing the entire thing and alleging that Brat secretly had the support of "liberal" reform advocates. Voters received mailers bragging that "CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN ERIC CANTOR IS STOPPING THE OBAMA-REID PLAN TO GIVE ILLEGAL ALIENS AMNESTY." With Cantor's defeat, you can bet Republicans who so much as hinted at supporting an immigration overhaul are hearing footsteps.
  • A debt-ceiling denialist. A top Brat critique of Cantor is that he supported raising the federal government's debt ceiling—however reluctantly. As Brat told Slate's Dave Weigel last month, "My commitment is not to increase spending; to have a spending bill where you don’t increase it. Cantor’s voted for 10 of the last 15 debt ceiling increases. I just don’t buy the idea that you are truly put in the position of backing the debt ceiling increase the last minute, that you had no choice."
  • A dragon slayer. With the primary victory, Brat will almost certainly head to Congress next fall representing a deep-red central Virginia district. Cantor is prohibited by Virginia's "sore loser" law from appearing on the ballot as an independent candidate in November. Brat just needs to get past Democrat Jack Trammell, a colleague at Randolph-Macon College who runs the school's disability services and, according to his Amazon author page, is currently writing a vampire novel.

Cantor, who has been dubbed a "rising star" going back to 2001, will almost certainly land on his feet. There's already a helpful Craigslist posting for "Experienced House Republican Seeking New Opportunity." Serious offers only.

Ted Cruz Addresses Rally Organized By Doctor Who Says Gays Recruit Children

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 11:36 AM EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz Cruz spoke at an anti-gay marriage rally on Thursday hosted by Steven Hotze, a controversial doctor who has told women that birth control would make them unappealing to men and has warned that equality for gays would be a stepping stone to child molestation. Hotze, who runs an alternative medicine practice in suburban Houston and is suing the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act, organized the event through his political action committee, Conservative Republicans of Texas. Cruz was joined on stage fellow Sen. John Cornyn, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, the party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

As I reported in April, Hotze's opposition to gay rights stretches back to at least the early 1980s, when he told Third Coast magazine that gay people "proliferate by one means, and one means only, and that's recruiting. And they recruit the weak. They recruit children or young people in their formative years." With that, he was off:

Three years later, after overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, Hotze organized a group of eight candidates he considered allies in the fight against homosexuality. He called them "the Straight Slate." His preferred mayoral candidate said that the best way to fight AIDS was to "shoot the queers." Hotze told a local newspaper reporter that he cased out restaurants before making reservations to make sure they didn't have any gay employees and became such a divisive figure in local politics that for a brief period the Harris County Republican Party cleaved in two.

More recently, his PAC spent big bucks to oppose Annise Parker, a Democratic candidate who would become Houston's first openly gay mayor in 2009. On Thursday, Cruz also signed onto an amicus brief in support of Hotze's lawsuit against Obamacare, which he contends is unconstitutional because it did not originate in the House. But Hotze is an unusual mascot for politicians who fear Obamacare has ruined the health care system, because he operates largely outside of it. An investigation by the Houston Press raised questions about his medical practice, noting that he had inflated his credentials and touted the healing powers of treatments such as colloidal silver—which can turn patients' skin permanently blue—which are not covered by health insurance and not backed up by studies.

Louisiana Republicans Wondering Why Bobby Jindal Doesn't Call Them Anymore

| Fri May 23, 2014 12:48 PM EDT

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has a new health care reform plan, a new political non-profit, and dreams of running for president in two years. But for the time being, he's still governor of Louisiana.

Sort of.

Even as the legislature wrestles over hot-button issues—including a bill to rein in the Common Core math and English standards and a proposal to prevent parishes from suing oil companies for coastal land loss—the second-term governor has been largely AWOL from Baton Rouge. He's as likely to pop up at the DC speech circuit (or in an early 2016 primary state) as he is to pick up the phone to hammer out legislation. And according to Louisiana-based investigative reporting site The Lens, Republicans back home are starting to take it personally:

Pearson said he finds Jindal's detachment "a little disheartening." The Slidell Republican said he has seen the governor twice this session: on opening day and at a committee chairman’s lunch.

"We have big problems with the budget. It looks like we're kicking the can down the road for the next one or two years," Pearson said, adding, "God, it would be nice to see his face on the [House] floor.

"He's the governor, the leader of the state. It's like being on a battlefield and seeing your general to know he's there and cares about the troops," Pearson added. "He should want to be here, be engaged. I don't see any evidence that he is."

Unease over Jindal's frequent out-of-state visits has been simmering for a while now among conservative allies. (Previously, The Lens explored the governor's failure to build to relationships with GOP lawmakers, with more than a dozen on-the-record critiques.) When I profiled Jindal for the magazine in March, I was struck by just how little love was lost between the boy-genius governor and the rank-and-file of his state party. As GOP presidential primary season creeps closer, those tensions aren't likely to go away.

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