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Justices Reject Ban on Guns Near Schools

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down a federal law that bars gun possession near schools. It ruled 5 to 4 that Congress exceeded its powers under the U.S. Constitution in passing the measure.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority in U.S. v. Lopez (Case No. 93-1260), said Congress went beyond its power to regulate interstate commerce when it enacted the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, a statute that makes it a federal crime to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of a school.

The federal law "has nothing to do with 'commerce' or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms," the Chief Justice said. If the gun measure were to be upheld as a proper exercise of Congressional power under the commerce clause of the Constitution, then virtually any federal law or regulation affecting education might also be justified, he added.

"Congress could mandate a federal curriculum for local elementary and secondary schools" under such a broad commerce power, he wrote in the April 26 decision.

Education Groups React

Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in an 18-page dissent, argued that Congress can legitimately conclude that the threat of gun violence around schools hampers education and thus the economic vitality of the nation.

"In today's economic world, gun-related violence near the classroom makes a significant difference to our economic, as well as our social, well-being," he wrote.

Most education groups had urged the High Court to uphold the law as a valid federal response to the growing threat of guns in and around schools. (See Education Week, 11/2/94.)

"The Court has just made life more difficult for urban schools, all in the name of a legal technicality," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban districts.

Robert F. Chase, the vice president of the National Education Association, called the ruling disturbing because "we need every tool at our disposal to guarantee that schools are safe places for teachers to teach and students to learn."

But one major education group had broken ranks with the others and urged the High Court to strike down the law. The National School Boards Association argued that gun possession near schools could be adequately addressed through state criminal laws. The N.S.B.A. warned that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was an example of Congress establishing a foothold in an area traditionally controlled by the states, which could only lead to greater federal regulation of education.

"We couldn't have asked for a better opinion in terms of corralling Congress in," said August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel of the N.S.B.A. "Too often, members of Congress pass this feel-good legislation that has no real impact."

The Court's ruling probably does not have implications for the gun-free-schools provision added to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act last year, legal experts said. That mandate is tied to federal funding made available by the E.S.E.A., and thus its legitimacy is not tied to Congress's commerce-clause power. The E.S.E.A. provision denies federal funds to states and districts that fail to adopt policies requiring the expulsion of students caught bringing guns to school. (See Education Week, 11/2/94.)

Handgun at Texas School

John R. Carter, the federal public defender who challenged the Gun-Free School Zones Act on behalf of a former San Antonio high school student, argued that the Court's invalidation of the law will not hamper efforts by state and local school and law-enforcement officials to battle the gun problem.

Indeed, some 40 states have similar laws establishing gun-free zones around schools.

"Schools are no more or no less safe today than they were yesterday," Mr. Carter said in an interview.

Mr. Carter's client is Alfonso Lopez Jr., who was charged with gun possession in 1992 after officials at Edison High School in San Antonio were tipped off that the young man was carrying a .38-caliber handgun. Mr. Lopez has said he was paid $40 to deliver the gun to another person for use in an after-school "gang war."

State prosecutors dropped their charges against Mr. Lopez after the local U.S. attorney's office indicted him under the federal statute. He was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison and two years of supervised release.

Mr. Lopez's conviction was overturned in 1993 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A three-judge panel held that Congress had failed to establish a connection between interstate commerce and gun possession near schools when it passed the law.

Mr. Lopez, who has been free on an appeal bond, could now face a reinstatement of state criminal charges, Mr. Carter said.

Limiting Congress

Chief Justice Rehnquist, in an opinion that discussed the growth of Congress's power under the commerce clause since the 1930's, said it was now time to establish a limit on the scope of that power.

The law on gun-free school zones, he said, does not meet the constitutional requirement that the regulated activity "substantially affect" interstate commerce.

The Chief Justice rejected the Justice Department's arguments that a sufficient connection was made because the presence of guns in school threatens the educational process and thereby has an adverse effect on the national economy.

"Under the theories that the government presents in support of [the law], it is difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power, even in areas such as criminal-law enforcement or education where states historically have been sovereign," Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote.

Such reasoning might lead to a mandated federal curriculum or federal regulation of child-rearing, he said.

Congress's authority, "though broad, does not include the authority to regulate each and every aspect of local schools," he added.

The Chief Justice was joined in his opinion by Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

Cumulative Effect

Justice Breyer read a portion of his dissent from the bench, a practice usually meant to convey strong disagreement with the majority. He said that rather than evaluating whether a single act of gun possession has an impact on the economy, the cumulative effect of the problem could be considered.

"Reports, hearings, and other readily available literature make clear that the problem of guns in and around schools is widespread and extremely serious," wrote Justice Breyer, who was joined in his dissent by Associate Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Breyer attached a 17-page appendix to his dissent listing dozens of reports that outline the problem of guns in schools.

"Based on reports such as these, Congress obviously could have thought that guns and learning are mutually exclusive," he said.

The High Court has upheld Congressional actions with connections to interstate commerce that are more distant than the effect of school violence, he said. For example, the Court upheld a federal law against loan sharking under the reasoning that such activity, by helping organized crime, has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

"The negative impact upon the national economy of an inability to teach basic skills seems no smaller (nor less significant) than that of organized crime," Justice Breyer wrote.

Other Action

In separate action last week, the Court:

  • Heard arguments in a case that will allow the Justices to attempt to clarify their often confusing rulings about whether religious symbols can be constitutionally displayed on government property.

In Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette (No. 94-780), the Court is weighing an Ohio case in which government officials sought to bar the Ku Klux Klan from displaying a cross, purportedly in recognition of Christmas, on the grounds of the state Capitol.

  • Rejected an appeal from the parents of a hearing-impaired student who were seeking reimbursement for placing their daughter in a private school after a dispute with officials of a Texas district over her individualized education plan.

The Justices rejected without comment the appeal in Bonnie Anne F. v. Callallen Independent School District (No. 94-1500.)

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