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United States v. Lopez

Citation. 514 U.S. 549, 115 S. Ct. 1624, 131 L. Ed. 2d 626, 1995 U.S. 3039.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Congress passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 (the Act), making it an offense for any individual to knowingly possess a firearm in a place the individual knows or has a reason to know is a school zone.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

An activity regulated by Congress under the Commerce Clause must relate to either (i) the channels of interstate commerce; (ii) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce and (iii) or activities having a substantial relationship to interstate commerce.


Congress passed the Act, making it an offense for any individual to knowingly possess a firearm in a place that the individual knows or has a reason to know is a school zone. The Court of Appeals declared the law invalid.


Did Congress have the power to enact the Act under the Commerce Clause?


No. The Court of Appeal’s decision is affirmed.
Congress must at least rationally conclude that a regulated activity substantially affects interstate commerce. The Act neither regulates a commercial activity nor contains a requirement that the possession of a gun be connected in any way to interstate commerce. If the Act can be sustained, it is hard to perceive of any logical stopping point on federal power, even in areas such as criminal law enforcement and education where the states historically have been sovereign.


Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) stated that Congress has the power to regulate commerce in firearms. This power must carry with it the power to prohibit possession at any location.
Justice David Souter (J. Souter) stated that in reviewing congressional legislation under the Commerce Clause, the court defers to congressional judgment that its regulation addresses a subject substantially affecting interstate commerce if there is any rational basis for such a conclusion.
Justice Stephen Breyer (J. Breyer) stated that Congress could have rationally found that there is a significant connection between gun-related school violence and interstate commerce. To hold this statute constitutional would not expand the scope of the Clause. Rather, it would recognize that in today’s world gun-related violence near the classroom affects our economic as well as social well-being.
Concurrence. Justice Anthony Kennedy (J. Kennedy) stated that education is traditional concern of the states. The Act insofar as it fails to show sufficient connection to commercial matters, threatens to disrupt the balance between the spheres of federal and state authority that our Constitution entails
Justice Clarence Thomas (J. Thomas) stated that the substantial effects test suffers from the flaw that it appears to grant Congress a police power over the Nation because of its aggregation principle. The aggregation principle is clever, but has no stopping point.


The Court is attempting to define the outer limits of what Congress has the power to regulate under the Commerce Clause.

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