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Printz v. United States

Citation. 521 U.S. 898 (1997)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner Jay Printz and Richard Mack, the chief law enforcement officer (CLE) for Ravalli County, Montana, and Graham County, Arizona, respectively filed separate actions challenging the constitutionality of the Brady Act’s interim provisions.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.


The Gun Control Act of 1968 establishes a detailed federal scheme governing the distribution of firearms. It prohibits firearms dealers from transferring handguns to any person under 21, not resident in the dealer’s State, or prohibited by state or local law from purchasing or possessing firearms. It also forbids possession of a firearm by, and transfer of a firearm to, convicted felons, fugitives from justice, unlawful users of controlled substances, persons adjudicated as mentally defective or committed to mental institutions. In 1993, Congress amended the GCA by enacting the Brady Act. It requires the Attorney General to establish a national instant background check system and immediately puts in place certain interim provisions until that system becomes operative.


Does certain interim provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, commanding state and local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers and to perform certain related tasks, violate the Constitution?


Yes, the Brady Act does not improve and in fact worsens the intrusion upon state sovereignty. It is not more compatible with this independence and autonomy that their officers be dragooned into administering federal law, than it would be compatible with the independence and autonomy of the United States that its officers be impressed into service for the execution of state laws.


Justice Stevens and Breyer

Breyer: The United States is not the only nation that seeks to reconcile the practical need for a central authority with the democratic virtues of more local control. At least some other countries, facing the same basic problem, have found that local control is better maintained through application of a principle that is the direct opposite of the principle the majority derives from the silence of the Constitution. Their experience may cast an empirical light on the consequences of different solutions to a common legal problem.

Stevens: The Constitution grants the Congress the power to regulate commerce among the States. The additional grant of authority to Congress to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers is adequate to support the temporary enlistment of local police officers in the process of identifying persons who should not be entrusted with the possession of handguns.


By forcing state governments to absorb the financial burden of implementing a federal regulatory program, Members of Congress can take credit for solving problems without having to ask their constituents to pay for the solutions with higher federal taxes. And even when the States are not forced to absorb the costs of implementing a federal program, they are still put in the position of taking the blame for its burdensomeness and for its defects. Under the present law, it will be the CLEO and not some federal official who stands between the gun purchaser and immediate possession of his gun. And it will be likely the CLEO, not some federal official, who will be blamed for any error that causes a purchaser to be mistakenly rejected. The Government argues that the Brady Act serves very important purposes, is most effectively administered by CLEOs during the interim period, and places a minimal and only temporary burden upon state officers. However, the Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.

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