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Printz v. United States

Citation. 521 U.S. 898, 117 S. Ct. 2365, 138 L. Ed. 2d 914, 1997 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Various state chief law enforcement officers (“CLEOs”) brought suit, alleging that the interim provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (the Act) unconstitutionally required state executive officers to apply a federal regulatory program.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“The Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.”


The Act called for the establishment of a national background check system for hand gun purchasers by November 30, 1998. In the interim, the Act required state and local law enforcement to do background checks before issuing firearm permits. The Petitioners, Printz and another county sheriff (Petitioners), alleged that this requirement overreaches the power of the Federal Government.


May Congress require state law enforcement agents to administer the background checks required by the Act?


No. Appeals court ruling reversed and remanded.
The interim provisions violate the federalist structure of the constitution, by requiring state executive officers to administer federal regulations.
The provisions also violate the federal separation of powers, by removing Presidential oversight from a federal program. Because the Act is a federal statute, the Constitution of the United States relegates the authority to enforce it to the President of the United States. By putting the enforcement of the interim provisions in the hands of state and local officials, Congress has stripped the federal executive of his constitutional duty to enforce federal legislation.


Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) reiterates his previous position that the Tenth Amendment’s borders should be established by the political branches.
Concurrence. Justice Clarence Thomas (J. Thomas) concurs, but goes further in saying that Congress not only lacks the ability to require the interim provisions under the Tenth Amendment, but also lacks the ability to control intrastate point of sale transactions under the commerce power.


Printz extends the Tenth Amendment prohibition of compelling state action to administer federal programs from state legislatures New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992) to state executive agencies. New York addressed the issue of Congress requiring state legislatures to dispose of radioactive waste or take title to it, whereas Printz deals with the federal government requiring action of state and local executives.

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