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High Court To Weigh Law Outlawing Guns Near Schools

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to decide the constitutionality of a 1990 federal law that bans the possession of guns within 1,000 feet of a school.

The law, known as the Gun-Free School Zones Act, was struck down last fall by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which said that Congress exceeded its authority under the commerce clause of the Constitution when it made gun possession near public or private schools a federal offense. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993.)

The High Court on April 18 agreed to hear the Clinton Administration's appeal in United States v. Lopez (Case No. 93-1260).

"The long tradition of federal regulation of firearms activity and Congress's repeated findings regarding the effects of that activity on interstate commerce adequately support'' the law on gun-free school zones, Solicitor General Drew Days argued in the government's petition to the High Court.

The Fifth Circuit Court ruled that in enacting the law, Congress failed to establish a connection between gun possession near schools and interstate commerce. Most federal gun laws relate to the sale of such weapons, the court pointed out.

"Both the management of education and the general control of simple firearms possession by ordinary citizens have traditionally been a state responsibility,'' the appeals court said.

The court added that a federal gun-possession law might be sustained if Congress made adequate legislative findings showing a connection to interstate commerce.

The Senate last fall added language to the crime bill that includes legislative findings that gun possession near schools affects interstate commerce.

The government's brief suggested that even if the crime bill finally passed by Congress includes such findings, the High Court case would not be moot because the validity of prosecutions under the 1990 law would still be at issue.

'A Gang War'

The appeals court overturned the gun-possession conviction ofAlfonso Lopez Jr., who was a senior at Edison High School in San Antonio in 1992 when he was caught with a handgun.

On the basis of an anonymous tip, school authorities confronted Mr. Lopez, who said he was being paid to deliver the weapon to another person for use in a "gang war.''

Mr. Lopez was convicted by a federal judge of violating the gun-free-zones law and was sentenced to six months in prison.

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, the lawyer for Mr. Lopez argued that the federal measure is "functionally superfluous'' because it applies only to adults, not juveniles, and that state laws provide adequate legal protections against gun possession near schools.

The federal measure does not "significantly increase safety in and around schools,'' said John R. Carter, an assistant federal public defender in San Antonio, in his brief on behalf of Mr. Lopez.

The federal courts have split on the question of Congress's authority to enact the law establishing the gun-free zones. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the law in December, and various federal district courts have ruled opposite ways on the question.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., one of the original sponsors of the legislation, said the Fifth Circuit Court's decision "goes against common sense and precedent.''

"Every day, more than 200,000 kids carry firearms into school,'' Senator Kohl said in a prepared statement. "Congress tried to do something about it, and I'm hopeful the Supreme Court will insure our authority to legislate in this area.''

The Court will hear the case during its next term, which begins in October.

Christian Videotape

In separate action last week, the High Court declined to hear the appeal of a Michigan girl who sued school officials when a teacher refused to allow her to show a videotape of herself singing a Christian song.

The 2nd-grade student, Kelly DeNooyer, chose the videotape as her "special belonging'' from home to show classmates under a program designed to promote students' self-esteem.

The girl's parents sued the Livonia, Mich., district, alleging that her rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the school officials, saying that they had a "legitimate pedagogical concern'' about showing the tape during class.

The case was DeNooyer v. Livonia Public Schools (No. 93-1323).

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