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Clinton Vows Steps To Reinstate Federal Gun Ban

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Washington

President Clinton and some members of Congress have vowed to take steps to reinstate the federal ban on gun possession near schools that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down late last month.

The President said he was "terribly disappointed" by the High Court's April 26 decision in U.S. v. Lopez, which invalidated the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The law made it a federal crime to possess a gun within 1,000 feet of any school.

"This Supreme Court decision could condemn more of our children to going to schools where there are guns," the President said during his regular weekly radio address on April 29.

He said he had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to act quickly to develop proposals for reinstating the federal ban.

"I want the action to be constitutional, but I am determined to keep guns away from schools," the President said.

The High Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, said Congress overstepped its constitutional authority in enacting the law. In effect, the Court said federal law-enforcement officials do not belong in the business of prosecuting street crimes such as gun possession near schools.

Such activity does not have enough of a connection to interstate commerce to justify a federal criminal law against it, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. (See Education Week, 5/3/95.)

President Clinton cited figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that show there have been 105 violent school-related deaths in the past two years.

"Today, there are guns on the playground, guns in the classroom, guns on the bus," he said.

The President said the Gun-Free School Zones Act had been a "bipartisan approach to school safety based on common sense." He called for exploring ways to effectively reinstate the ban within the constraints set by the Supreme Court.

Funding Link Proposed

One possible way might be for Congress to pass a law encouraging states to ban guns from school zones as a condition of receiving federal education funds, the President said.

Forty-two states already have their own statutes outlawing gun possession in school zones, according to one estimate. Under President Clinton's suggested measure, those that do not would have to pass such laws and others might have to beef up their penalties to meet a federally proscribed standard, or else risk the loss of federal funds.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said Attorney General Reno was still working on a proposal for the President as of late last week.

Sen. Herb Kohl, the original sponsor of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, suggested that the law could be reinstated with an amendment that establishes more clearly a link between gun possession near schools and interstate commerce.

For example, Congress might require proof that a gun traveled across state lines, which most commercial firearms do.

A spokesman for Mr. Kohl said the Wisconsin Democrat would introduce legislation by the end of the month to reinstate the ban.

However, such measures may face a roadblock in Congress. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, applauded the Supreme Court's decision as a needed limit on Congressional power.

"No one wants guns in or around schools, but state and local legislators can and do amply protect against this danger," Senator Hatch said in a statement. "Under our Constitution, the federal government has enumerated, not unlimited, powers."

Aides to other key Republican lawmakers said they did not see any eagerness to pass legislation to bypass the ban.

'Simple and Effective'?

For President Clinton and other politicians, calling for strict measures against guns in schools may be politically popular, but is the Gun-Free School Zones Act considered effective?

Several groups that are concerned about the presence of guns near schools nonetheless have not supported the law. Those groups, which include the National School Boards Association, the National Governors' Association, and the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the Supreme Court in a brief in the Lopez case that the law allows federal authorities to interject in "longstanding and close working relationships which exist between local school administrators, police, and prosecutors."

Barry Friedman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who helped write the state groups' brief, said the law's effects are limited. "The federal law creates the illusion the federal government is doing something about guns in schools, when it really isn't," he said.

Senator Kohl disagrees. He said in a statement that the law has been "simple, effective, and straightforward." But even his office has been unable to determine the number of prosecutions nationwide since the law took effect.

Stiffer Sentences

Alfonso Lopez Jr., the defendant at the heart of the Supreme Court case, is a free man because he was charged under the federal law.

Mr. Lopez was a senior at Edison High School in San Antonio in 1992 when he was caught with a gun. He was originally charged under Texas law, which also makes it a felony to possess a gun in a school zone.

However, state prosecutors dropped their charges when the local U.S. attorney decided to charge Mr. Lopez in federal court.

Mr. Lopez's court-appointed lawyer contested the constitutionality of the federal law all the way to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a pair of cases from Wichita, Kan., show how the federal law might have led to stiffer sentences for two men caught with weapons near a middle school in 1993.

Police stopped Shane B. Trigg and Cody Glover outside Robinson Middle School during an investigation of gang activity. Mr. Trigg, then 19, was allegedly carrying an unloaded .25-caliber handgun. Mr. Glover, then 18, allegedly had a loaded .38-caliber pistol.

Instead of allowing local prosecutors to charge the two men under Kansas law, which makes gun possession in a school zone a misdemeanor, the U.S. attorney's office charged them under the federal statute. If convicted, the men would have faced up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

Because of the Supreme Court's ruling, the federal charges against the two men will likely be dismissed.

Lynn Ward, Mr. Glover's defense lawyer, said her client and Mr. Trigg could still face charges in state court, where she believes the matter should have been handled all along.

"There is an awful lot of politics that goes into these decisions about whether to prosecute in federal or state court," she said. "It doesn't seem to be a good use of federal resources to get involved in what we typically consider to be street crimes."

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