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Federal Court Strikes Down Gun-Free School Zones Law

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Congress overstepped its powers under the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause when it enacted a 1990 law that established "gun-free school zones,'' a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last month invalidated the law known as the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which makes it a federal crime for an adult to possess firearms within 1,000 feet of any public or private school.

The Sept. 15 decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Will Garwood said, "Both the management of education, and the general control of simple firearms possession by ordinary citizens have traditionally been a state responsibility.''

In enacting the law, Congress failed to establish a connection between gun possession near schools and interstate commerce, the court held. It said such a law might be sustained if Congress passed it with adequate legislative findings showing that connection.

The Fifth Circuit panel ruled in a case from San Antonio in which a high school senior, Alfonso Lopez Jr., was caught at school carrying a handgun. Mr. Lopez was convicted under the federal law and sentenced to six months in prison.

The Fifth Circuit overturned the conviction and ordered his indictment dismissed.

Groups Back Gun-Free Zones

The court's ruling was the first at the federal appellate level on the validity of the law, which a coalition of education and gun-control groups has defended as an important federal tool to fight the growing threat of gun violence in and around schools.

In a challenge pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, among other groups, have filed a brief supporting the law. (See Education Week, June 2, 1993.)

Dennis A. Henigan, a lawyer with the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, said the groups had not been aware of the challenge in the Fifth Circuit.

"This decision may simply mean Congress has to pass the law again to make the connection and findings regarding interstate commerce,'' he said. "We strongly feel the national scope of the problem dictates a federal response.''

But John R. Carter, a federal public defender who represented Mr. Lopez, said the law is an ineffective response to the problem of gun violence near schools.

"They can only prosecute people who are over 18, so as for students with guns, it's barely touching the problem,'' he said.

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