514 U.S. 549 (1995), argued 8 Nov. 1994, decided 26 Apr. 1995 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for the Court, Kennedy filing a concurring opinion, in which O’Connor joined, and Thomas filing a concurring opinion, Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg in dissent. Congress in 1990 enacted the Gun-Free School Zones Act, making it a federal offense to possess a firearm in a school zone. Congress relied on the authority of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to justify passage of the legislation as a way of stemming the rising tide of gun-related incidents in public schools.
Alfonso Lopez, Jr., was in 1992 a senior at Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas. Acting on an anonymous tip, school authorities confronted Lopez and discovered that he was carrying a .38 caliber handgun and five bullets. A federal grand jury subsequently indicted Lopez, who then moved to have the indictment dismissed on grounds that the federal government had no authority to legislate control over the public schools. At a bench trial, the federal district court judge found Lopez guilty and sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment and two years’ supervised release. Lopez then appealed to the federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which reversed the conviction and held the Gun-Free School Zones Act unconstitutional as an invalid exercise by Congress of the commerce power.
The Lopez case posed the question of the extent to which Congress could exercise authority over street crime and, in so doing, intrude into constitutional space traditionally occupied by the states. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the Supreme Court had accepted that Congress had broad authority to regulate virtually every aspect of American life under the cover of the federal Commerce Clause. Moreover, the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, while it had occurred after passage of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, created a political environment where both the Clinton administration and Republican congressional leaders believed that the federal government had to combat domestic terrorist groups and the weapons that they used.
The case drew considerable attention from diverse interest groups. The National Education Association, for example, joined with the Clinton administration and various antigun groups to argue that schools had experienced difficulty in handling gun-related crimes. For the government, Solicitor General Drew S. Days argued that the law was different from other statutes dealing with firearms in that it targeted possession rather than sale. Yet Days also insisted that a close connection existed between violence in schools and the movement of guns in interstate commerce. The government insisted that guns were often used as part of the drug culture that was itself carried on through national commerce. The government also argued that in this instance Congress was merely trying to supplement state law rather than trying to supplant it, hence it did not have to demonstrate as strong a link between the movement of guns in interstate commerce and the establishment of gun-free schools zones as it might otherwise have had to do.