The respondent challenged his conviction based on his claim that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded Congress’ power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.
The Court has identified three broad categories of activity that Congress may regulate under its commerce power. First, Congress may regulate the use of the channels of interstate commerce. Second, Congress is empowered to regulate and protect the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce even though the threat may come only from intrastate activities. Third, Congress’ commerce authority includes the power to regulate those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.
In the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, Congress prohibited anyone from knowingly possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone. The Act neither regulates commercial activity nor contains a requirement that the possession be connected with interstate commerce. Respondent, a 12th grade student, arrived at the high school in Texas, carrying a concealed handgun and five bullets. School authorities confronted him and he admitted the possession of a handgun. He was arrested and charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises. The next day, the state charges were dismissed after federal agents charged respondent by complaint with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act.
Did the power of Congress exceed its power under the Commerce Clause when it prohibited anyone, from knowingly possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone under the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990?
Yes, the Act exceeds the authority of Congress to regulate commerce among the several States, because the Act is a criminal statute that has nothing to do with commerce or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define the terms included. The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce, and there is no indication that the respondent had recently moved in interstate commerce.
Justice Stevens and Breyer
Stevens: Congress has ample power to prohibit the possession of firearms in or near schools just as it may protect the school environment from harms posed by controlled substances.
Breyer: The statute at issue is aimed at curbing a particularly acute threat to the educational process – the possession of life-threatening firearms in classrooms. Courts must also give Congress a degree of leeway in determining the existence of a significant factual connection between the regulated activity and interstate commerce because the Constitution delegates the commerce power directly to Congress and the determination requires an empirical judgment of a kind that Congress is more likely than a court to make with accuracy.
The statute is also not an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated. The statute, therefore, cannot be sustained under our cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which when viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce. Moreover, the Act contains no jurisdictional element which would ensure that the firearm possession in question affects interstate commerce. While the Court agrees with the Government that Congress normally is not required to make formal findings as to the substantial burdens that an activity has on interstate commerce, to the extent that congressional findings would enable the Court to evaluate the legislative judgment that the activity in question substantially affected interstate commerce, they are lacking in the present case.