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United States v. Lopez

Citation. 514 U.S. 549 (1995)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendent was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibited the carrying of firearms in school zones.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

  • The Supreme Court identified three categories of activities that Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause: (1) the use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, and (3) activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce.
  • The Commerce Clause does not give Congress the power to prohibit the possession of firearms in school zones.


Congress passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (“Act” or “§ 922(q)”), which made it a federal offense to possess a firearm in a school zone.  Defendent Lopez was arrested for carrying a handgun and five bullets in a high school in Texas. Federal agents charged him with violating the Act.


Was the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 fall within the scope of Congress’ Commerce Clause power?


No, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 did not fall within the scope of Congress’ Commerce Clause power.


Justice Stevens

Justice Stevens argued that guns are articles of commerce, and articles that can be used to restrain commerce, and that Congress did have the power to prohibit their possession in particular markets and locations.

Justice Souter

Justice Souter argued that the question before the Supreme Court was not whether the regulated activity substantially affected commerce, because the statute implied that Congress made such a finding.

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer argued on behalf of three principles of Commerce Clause interpretation: (1) the commerce power includes the power to regulate local activities that significantly affect interstate commerce; (2) in determining whether a local activity will likely have a significant affect on interstate commerce, a court must consiter the cumulative effect of the regulated activity, not just the effect of a single instance of the activity, and; (3) under the Constitution, courts must give Congress a degree of discretion in determining the existence of a significant connection between the regulated activity and interstate commerce. Under these principles, Justice Souter argued, the statute at issue was consistent with Congress’ commerce power.

Justice Breyer argued that the majority’s holding created three problems: (1) the holding conflicted with modern Supreme Court jurisprudence that upheld congressional actions despite connections to commerce that were less significant thatn the effect of school violence; (2) the holding established a distinction between commercial and noncommercial transactions in Commerce Clause analyses, and (3) the holding threatened uncertainty in an area of law that had been settled.


Justice Kennedy

Justice Kennedy argued that § 922(q) upset the balance between federal and state authority in a way that made it difficult for citizens to impose accountability upon the government. He also argued that the statute did not regulate activity that had a commercial character, and that neither the purposes nor the design of the statute had an evidence commercial nexus.

Justice Thomas

Justice Thomas argued that the “substantial effect” test that the majority used construes the Commerce Clause too broadly, and is inconsistent with the original understanding of the Commerce Clause.


The Supreme Court briefly recited the history of some of its Commerce Clause jurisprudence, including the cases A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp v. United States, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., and United States v. Darby. According to the Supreme Court, its jurisprudence expanded Congress commerce power over time, but the power was still subject to some limits. Based on its jurisprudence, the Supreme Court established three broad categories of activity that Congress could regulate under the Commerce Clause: (1) the use of the channels of interstate commerce, (2) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, and (3) activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce. The Supreme Court found that the Act did not fall within either of the first two categories, so it would have to fall within the third category—that is, it would have to be substantially related to interstate commerce—to be upheld.

The government argued that § 922(q) did substantially affect interstate commerce because the possession of firearms in school zones may result in violent crime, and (1) the costs of violent crime are sustantial and, thorugh insurance, are spread out throughout the population, and (2) violent crime reduces the willinness of individuals to travel to areas perceived to be unsafe. The government also argued that firearm possession in schools posed a substantial threat to the educational process, and thereby could adversely effect the country’s economic well-being. The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, holding that accepting them would require the Supreme Court to “pile inference upon inference,” and it would also allow Congress to regulate any individual activity.

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