Printz v. United States (1997)
Jay Printz, a law enforcement officer from Arizona, sued to challenge the constitutionality of the Brady Act provision that required him and other local chief law enforcement officials (CLEOs) to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers. Printz and other officials won at the district court, but the Court of Appeals found the Brady Act constitutional. They then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Brady Act provision was unconstitutional. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion. He stated that early federal statutes did not suggest that Congress thought it had the power to direct the actions of State executive officials. Also, the overall structure of the Constitution implies that Congress may not direct State officials: “The Framers explicitly chose a Constitution that confers upon Congress the power to regulate individuals, not States.” Finally, although it is the President's job under the Constitution to oversee execution of federal laws, “The Brady Act effectively transfers this responsibility to thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control….”
In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the majority opinion misinterpreted Congress's power under the Constitution. Congress may not usurp the powers that the Constitution reserves to the States, but when it exercises its legitimate constitutional powers, its actions are binding on the States, and State officials must obey congressional instructions. He also argued that the absence of similar statutes in earlier times does not prove that Congress lacks the power to enact such laws now. “The Federal Government undertakes activities today that would have been unimaginable to the Framers.”
Although advocates and opponents of gun control watched the Printz case closely as it worked its way through the courts, the issue actually considered by the Supreme Court has had little effect on the gun control debate. The Brady Act itself required the Attorney General to establish a national instant background check system by November 30, 1998. The duties imposed on CLEOs, which were ultimately found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, were part of the temporary process that Congress established until a national instant background check system was operating.
Under the national system in effect since November 30, 1998, a prospective buyer provides background information to the gun dealer, and the dealer calls an FBI office in West Virginia where an agent performs an immediate check. The FBI responds by telling the dealer to proceed with the sale, to wait pending further investigation, or to not sell to this buyer.
The FBI performed 372,565 background checks during the first two weeks of the new procedure. Less than one percent of the applicants were denied. Over three-quarters received immediate approval, while the rest needed more investigation before being approved.
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