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The Supreme Court

Killing Gun Control

Alfonso Lopez arrived at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas carrying a concealed .38 caliber handgun with five bullets on March 10, 1992. School authorities received an anonymous tip about the gun and after confronting Lopez, he admitted he was carrying the weapon.

Just the Facts

The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows … is a school zone.” The act was passed by Congress in 1990 because of growing public concerns about violence, particularly gun violence, in the nation's schools.

Lopez was arrested and charged under Texas law with possession of a firearm on school premises. The next day, state charges were dismissed after federal agents decided to charge Lopez with a violation of the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990.

Lopez's attorneys moved to dismiss the federal indictment on the ground that it was “unconstitutional as it is beyond the power of Congress to legislate control over our public schools.” The district court denied the motion, concluding the act was “a constitutional exercise of Congress's well defined power to regulate activities in and affecting commerce, and the 'business' of elementary, middle and high schools … affects interstate commerce.” Lopez waived his right to a jury trial. The district court conducted a bench trial, found him guilty and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment and two years' supervised release.

Lopez appealed the conviction based on the claim that Congress had exceeded its legislative powers under the commerce clause. The 5th Circuit Court agreed with Lopez and reversed his conviction. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case and affirmed the 5th Circuit Court's ruling and declared the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 unconstitutional.

The Court's ruling on April 26, 1995 was a split 5 to 4 decision. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion for the Court and was joined by Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas. Rehnquist wrote:

Court Connotations

Bench trial is a trial without a jury. The judge determines all questions of law and tries the defendant.

  • “The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce. Respondent was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce.
  • “To uphold the Government's contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States.”

Justice Breyer's dissent was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Souter, and Stevens. In his dissent Breyer wrote:

  • “Having found that guns in schools significantly undermine the quality of education in our Nation's classrooms, Congress could also have found, given the effect of education upon interstate and foreign commerce, that gun-related violence in and around schools is a commercial, as well as a human, problem. Education, although far more than a matter of economics, has long been inextricably intertwined with the Nation's economy. … In recent years the link between secondary education and business has strengthened, becoming both more direct and more important. Scholars on the subject report that technological changes and innovations in management techniques have altered the nature of the workplace so that more jobs now demand greater educational skills.”

The Supreme Court's ruling did not stand for long. Congress passed a slightly revised bill called the Gun-Free School Zones Amendments Act of 1995, which is still on the books. The new law's revisions were widely considered to be cosmetic changes.

The revised school gun law included the requirement that the Government prove the firearms had moved in interstate commerce or “the possession of such firearm otherwise affects interstate or foreign commerce.” This requirement rarely hurts the government's case since the vast majority of firearms do move in interstate commerce before being purchased.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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