Brief Fact Summary. The Gun-Free School Zones Act (the Act) of 1990 made possessing a gun within a school zone a federal offense. A 12th grade student (Lopez) was convicted of violating the Act when he brought a handgun to his high school.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The power of Congress to regulate activities extends only to those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. The Act neither regulates commercial activity, nor contains a requirement that the possession be connected in any way to interstate commerce.
Issue. Does the commerce power of Congress extend to activities that have no apparent connection to interstate commerce?
Held. No. The Court of Appeals is affirmed. The activity being regulated must “substantially affect” interstate commerce. There are three broad categories of activity Congress may regulate under the commerce power. First, the channels of interstate commerce. Second, the instrumentalities of interstate commerce. Third, activities having a substantial effect upon interstate commerce.
In the instant case, only the third category applies. In order for the statute to be deemed valid, the activity must substantially affect interstate commerce. The Act is a criminal statute, which does not regulate economic activity. In passing the Act, Congress banned possession of a gun that has never traveled in, or affected, interstate commerce. Congress provided no findings in the statute showing possession of guns in schools affected commerce.
The federal government argues possessing a firearm could affect the national economy in two ways. First, by imposing high financial costs upon society through insurance. Second, by preventing individuals from traveling into areas where violent crime occurs. Thus, the government concludes, the Act substantially affects interstate commerce.
The majority rejected these arguments because under the government’s theories, there would be no limits on federal power. The commerce power would extend to any activity that leads to violent crime and any activity related to the economic productivity of individuals. Congress does not have plenary police power. Possession of a gun in a school zone is not an economic activity that affects interstate commerce.
Dissent. (Breyer, J) Congress had a rational basis for finding a substantial connection between gun-related school violence and interstate commerce. Evidence exists that gun-related violence interferes with the quality of education in schools and education is related to economic viability.
(Souter, J) Congress had a rational basis for its conclusions. Further, gun-related violence around schools is a commercial problem. The majority wrongly believes it can justify its holding by distinguishing between commercial and non-commercial transactions.
Concurrence. (Kennedy, J) While the majority’s holding is viable, it should be limited. If not, the holdings of prior Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) cases interpreting the Commerce Clause will be infringed upon. Congress should have the power to regulate all commercial transactions. The Supreme Court should not disturb the essential principles of the commerce power. Further, education has traditionally been an activity regulated by the states. It should not be regulated under the federal commerce power.
(Thomas, J) The Supreme Court has departed from the traditional understanding of the Commerce Clause. The Constitution does not support the idea Congress has authority over all activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. The substantial affects test is a departure from the original understanding of the commerce clause. It incorrectly grants Congress a police power.
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Discussion. When an activity is not directly connected to commerce, the Congressional regulation will usually not be upheld, especially when the activity is traditionally regulated by the states.