United States v. Lopez (514 US 549)
Facts: Alfonso Lopez Jr was a student of Edison High School in San Antonio Texas. In March 1992, he arrived at school carrying a .38 caliber gun loaded with bullets. The school officials found out about this. The gun was confiscated and he was arrested. He was initially charged under Texas Law for firearm possession on school premises. The next day the state charges were dismissed and the federal agents charged the respondent of violating a federal law which is the Gun-Free School Zones Act which forbids “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a school zone"
During the trial, the respondent challenged the constitutionality of this particular provision under the Gun-Free School Zones Act. The District Court denied this motion and upheld the constitutionality of this provision. It declared that this provision is a constitutional exercise of the power of Congress to regulate activities in and affecting commerce. Since the business of elementary, middle and high schools affects interstate commerce, it is therefore within the power of Congress to regulate the carrying of guns in school. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision.
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The Law and Constitutional Provision at Issue: At issue here is the proper interpretation of that power delegated by the Constitution to Congress which is the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states and with the Indian Tribes”
Issue: whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act is valid exercise of power under the Congress interstate Commerce Clause
The Legal Opinion of the Court: Congress exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause. It is therefore unconstitutional. It ruled that although in previous case the Supreme Court has upheld a wide variety of congressional acts regulating economic activity, the possession of firearm in school has no connections whatsoever with economic activity. It has no substantial effect on interstate commerce. This particular provision under the Gun-Free School Zone Act is criminal in nature that has nothing to do with commerce per se.
Dissenting Opinion: In his dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer argued that gun-related violence in schools has an effect in interstate commerce in the sense that violence undermines to a significant extent the quality of education that is critical to economic prosperity. When violence is widespread in schools learning is affected and threatened.
What is Important in this Case? At first glance, the decision in this case dismissing a criminal charge against a student who actually carried a loaded gun in school may be perplexing. Yet, I believe this case is not about school violence. This case is not about enforcing ban on guns in school. This is about the extent proper delineation of boundaries between the powers of the federal government and the state government. In this case, the federal government made a mistake in using as basis a federal statute.
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