United States v. Lopez: The Case and Its Impact

Weapons Free Zone sign at school field
Gun-Free School Zone Sign. Stuart McAll / Getty Images

In United States v. Lopez (1995), the United States Supreme Court declared the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 an unconstitutional overreach of the implied powers of Congress under the Commerce Clause. The 5-4 divided decision preserved the system of federalism and reversed the Supreme Court’s 50-year trend of rulings that expanded the powers of Congress.

Fast Facts: United States v. Lopez

  • Case Argued: November 4, 1994
  • Decision Issued: April 26, 1995
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: Alfonso Lopez, Jr.
  • Key Questions: Is the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act’s prohibition of possessing a gun in a school zone an unconstitutional overreach of the power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy
  • Dissenting: Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Stevens, and Souter
  • Ruling: The legislative history of the Gun-Free School Zones Act failed to justify it as a constitutional exercise of the Commerce Clause.

Facts of the Case

On March 10, 1992, 12th-grader Alfonso Lopez, Jr. carried an unloaded handgun into his high school in San Antonio, Texas. After admitting to having the gun, Lopez was arrested and charged with violating the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which makes it a crime “for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm [in] a school zone.” After being indicted by a grand jury, Lopez was found guilty by a trial court and sentenced to six months in prison and two years on probation.

Lopez appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that the Gun-Free School Zones Act exceeded the power granted to the Congress by the Commerce Clause. (The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes"). Congress had long cited the Commerce Clause as justification for passing gun control laws

Finding that possession of a firearm had only a “trivial impact” on commerce, the Fifth Circuit overturned Lopez’s conviction, further noting that the legislative history of the Gun-Free School Zones Act failed to justify it as a constitutional exercise of the Commerce Clause.

In approving the United States government’s petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Circuit Court’s ruling.

Constitutional Issues

In its deliberations, the Supreme Court faced the question of whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act was a constitutional exercise of the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress power over interstate commerce. The Court was asked to consider whether the possession of a firearm in some way “affected” or “substantially affected” interstate commerce.

The Arguments

In its effort to demonstrate that possession of a firearm in a school zone was a matter that affects interstate commerce, the U.S. government offered the following two arguments:

  1. Possession of a firearm in an educational environment heightens the likelihood of violent crimes, which in turn, will increase insurance costs and create expenses harmful to the economy. In addition, the perception of the danger of violence will limit the public’s willingness to travel to the area, thus harming the local economy.
  2. With a well-educated populace being critical to the nation’s financial health, the presence of firearms in a school may frighten and distract students and teachers, inhibiting the learning process and thus leading to a weaker national economy.

Majority Opinion

In its 5-4 majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court rejected both of the government’s arguments, finding that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was not substantially related to interstate commerce.

First, the Court held that the government's argument would give the federal government virtually unlimited power to prohibit any activity (such as public assembly) that might lead to violent crime, regardless of that activity’s connection to interstate commerce.

Secondly, the Court held that the government's argument provided no safeguards to prevent Congress from applying the Commerce Clause as justification for legislation prohibiting any activity (such as careless spending) that might limit an individual’s economic productivity.

The opinion also rejected the government’s argument that by harming education, crime in schools substantially affects commerce. Justice Rehnquist concluded:

“To uphold the Government's contentions here, we 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. This we are unwilling to do."

Dissenting Opinion

In the Court’s dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer cited three principles that he considered basic to the case:

  1. The Commerce Clause implies the power to regulate activities that “significantly affect” interstate commerce.
  2. Rather than considering a single act, the courts must consider the cumulative effect of all similar acts—such as the effect of all incidents of gun possession in or near schools—on interstate commerce.
  3. Rather than determining whether the regulated activity significantly affected interstate commerce, the courts must determine whether Congress could have had a “rational basis" for concluding that the activity affected interstate commerce.

Justice Breyer cited empirical studies he said tied violent crimes in schools to the degradation of the quality of education. He then referred to studies showing the growing importance of primary and secondary of education in the job market, and the tendency of U.S. businesses to base location decisions on the presence or absence of a well-educated workforce.

Using this rationale, Justice Breyer concluded that school gun violence clearly could have an effect on interstate commerce and that Congress could have rationally concluded that its effect could be “substantial.”

The Impact

Because of the United States v. Lopez decision, Congress rewrote the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 to include the required "substantial effect" connection to interstate commerce used as justification for other federal gun control laws. Specifically, the connection requires that at least one of the firearms used in the crime “has moved in … interstate commerce.”

Because almost all firearms have at some point moved in interstate commerce, gun rights advocates argue that the change was merely a legislative tactic to bypass the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, the revised Federal Gun Free School Zones Act remains in effect today and has been upheld by several United States Circuit Courts of Appeals.

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