United States v. Lopez

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On March 10, 1992, Alfonzo Lopez, Jr., a 12th grade student, walked into his high school in San Antonio, Texas, with a concealed .38 caliber handgun and five bullets. He was arrested and charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises. The next day, however, the state charges were dropped when federal agents charged Lopez with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. That law prohibited firearms in school zones. Lopez was convicted under the federal charges.

Noting that the powers delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are few and defined, a divided Supreme Court concluded that Congress had exceeded its power in passing the Gun-Free School Zones Act and struck down the law in a five-to-four decision. Although the government argued that its power stemmed from the Commerce Clause, the Court disagreed, saying that the law was a criminal statute that had nothing to do with commerce or any sort of economic activity.

In response to the Courts ruling, Congress revised the law by adding a requirement that the prohibited firearms move through or affect interstate commerce. The revised law was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1995.


 United States v. Lopez


514 U.S. 549 (1995)

certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

After respondent, then a 12th grade student, carried a concealed handgun into his high school, he was charged with violating the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990, which forbids "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a school zone," 18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(1)(A). The District Court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment, concluding that §922(q) is a constitutional exercise of Congress' power to regulate activities in and affecting commerce. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that, in light of what it characterized as insufficient congressional findings and legislative history, §922(q) is invalid as beyond Congress' power under the Commerce Clause.

Held: The Act exceeds Congress' Commerce Clause authority. First, although this Court has upheld a wide variety of congressional Acts regulating intrastate economic activity that substantially affected interstate commerce, the possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have such a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Section 922(q) is a criminal statute that by its terms has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly those terms are defined. Nor is it an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated. It cannot, therefore, be sustained under the Court's cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce. Second, §922(q) contains no jurisdictional element which would ensure, through case by case inquiry, that the firearms possession in question has the requisite nexus with 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 contention that §922(q) is justified because firearms possession in a local school zone does indeed substantially affect interstate commerce would require this Court to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional Commerce Clause authority to a general police power of the sort held only by the States. Pp. 2-19.

2 F. 3d 1342, affirmed.

To read the rest of the opinion in United States v. Lopez, go to Nolos US Supreme Court Center.

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