United States v. Lopez

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Edison High School

DOCKET NO.: 93-1260
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 514 US 549 (1995)
ARGUED: Nov 08, 1994
DECIDED: Apr 26, 1995

Drew S. Days, III – Argued the cause for the petitioner
John R. Carter – Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Alfonzo Lopez, a 12th grade high school student, carried a concealed weapon into his San Antonio, Texas high school. He was charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises. The next day, the state charges were dismissed after federal agents charged Lopez with violating a federal criminal statute, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act forbids “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows…is a school zone.” Lopez was found guilty following a bench trial and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and two years’ supervised release.


Is the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, forbidding individuals from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, unconstitutional because it exceeds the power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?

Media for United States v. Lopez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 08, 1994 in United States v. Lopez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 26, 1995 in United States v. Lopez

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce the number 93-1260, United States versus Lopez.

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of the Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

After respondent, then a 12th-grade student carried a concealed handgun into his high school.

He was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which makes it a federal offense for any individual to knowingly posses a firearm within a thousand feet of a public or private school.

Respondent was convicted but the Court of Appeals reversed that conviction because it concluded that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was invalid as beyond Congress’ power under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The constitution creates a federal government of enumerated powers and delegates to Congress the power to regulate commerce among the several states.

Our cases have long upheld federal regulation of a wide variety of commercial activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.

The Guns-Free School Zones Act however goes further.

It neither regulates a commercial activity, nor contains a requirement of the possession of the firearm be connected in anyway to interstate commerce.

To uphold the act we would have to pile inference upon the inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert Congressional Authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the State.

To do so, it would require us to obliterate the distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local.

So, this is something we are unwilling to do.

We hold that Congress in enacting the Gun-Free School Zones Act exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion and joined by Justice O’Connor.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion.

In addition, Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg and I have filed a dissent.

In our view, the statute falls well within the scope of the constitution’s commerce power.

In reaching this conclusion, we apply three well-established legal principles.

First, Congress can regulate acts within a single state but significantly affect commerce among the states.

Second, in deciding whether that is so, the court must consider not a single instance; say if the single gun in a school, but the cumulative effects of many similar instances of all guns that are in or near schools.

Third, the court must also give Congress considerable leeway that is to say, the court must ask not whether there is in fact a significant Commerce Clause connection but only whether Congress could rationally believe so.

Applying these standards, it seems clear to us that Congress could believe that guns in schools are now to a commercial as well as a human problem.

A host of government reports, hearings and studies set forth facts that show; one, that guns in schools is a serious problem.

One study for example says that 6% of intercity children carry guns to school, the 12% have been shot out and up to 20% have been threatened.

Two, that school violence significantly impairs learning.

Three, that learning, reading, writing, arithmetic has long accounted for much of our nation’s economic growth, and today and in the future in a world of high technology and global economic competition, the differences between classrooms that teach and those that do no, may well spell the difference between high paying jobs and unemployment between firms locating in a community or staying away in a word between prosperity and poverty.

At the least, Congress could have a come to such a conclusion.

William H. Rehnquist:

It could have found guns in schools, antithetical to a well-educated workforce and it could reasonably have believed that an educated workforce in today’s world gives a community the kind of advantage comparable to that, given by location near a railhead or harbor in the past.

This court has long recognized to ‘Justice Holmes’, that commerce is a practical not a technical legal conception.

It also has long proved willing to apply preexisting Commerce Clause Law to changing economic circumstance.

That being so, the reasonableness of Congress’ factual beliefs should have proved sufficient bases for finding the connection with interstate commerce that the constitution requires and holding he Gun-Free School Zones Act constitutional.

Such a holding would be consistent with if not dictated by this court’s prior President.

For these and other reasons we dissent.