United States v. Lopez
514 U.S. 549 (1995)

  • Lopez, was caught in possession of a gun his high school in San Antonio, Texas. He was charged with violating a Federal Statute banning guns in school (Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, (aka 18 U.S.C. §922(q))).
  • The Trial Court convicted Lopez. He appealed.
    • Lopez argued that 18 U.S.C. §922(q) was unconstitutional because Congress didn’t have the power to make such a law.
    • The US argued that possession of a firearm in a school zone can be expected to lead to violent crime, which can be expected to affect economy and traveling in the area, as well as to produce a citizenry with less of an education due to the distraction of the violent crime and in the long-term, a weaker economy. Thus, possession of a firearm at a school falls under jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Clause.
  • The US Supreme Court found 18 U.S.C. §922(q) to be unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court found that while Congress had broad lawmaking authority under the Interstate Commerce Clause, it was not unlimited, and did not apply to something as far from commerce as carrying handguns, especially when there was no evidence that carrying them affected the economy on a massive scale.
      • The Court found that possession of a gun near a school is not an economic activity that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. A law prohibiting guns near schools is a criminal statute that does not relate to commerce or any sort of economic activity.
    • The Court found that Congress had the power to regulate only:
      • The channels of commerce,
      • The instrumentalities of commerce, or persons or things in interstate commerce, even if the threat comes from intrastate activities, and
      • Action that substantially affects interstate commerce.
    • The Court reasoned that if Congress could regulate something so far removed from commerce, then it could regulate anything, and since the Constitution clearly creates Congress as a body with enumerated powers, this could not be so.
    • The Court suggested a four-factor test to determine if an activity was within Congress’ power to regulate under the Interstate Commerce Clause:
      • Whether the activity was non-economic as opposed to economic activity.
      • Whether the items involved (in this case the gun) had moved in interstate commerce.
      • Whether there had been Congressional findings of an economic link between guns and education.
      • How attenuated the link was between the regulated activity and interstate commerce.
  • In a dissent it was argued that this law would not open the floodgates to allow Congress to regulate everything.
    • “A holding that a particular Statute before us falls within the commerce power would not expand the scope of that Clause. Rather it simply would apply pre-existing law to changing economic circumstances.”
    • They also argued that previous decisions didn’t depend on whether or not the actual activity was commerce, only that it “exerted a substantial economic effect on Interstate Commerce.” (See Wickard v. Filburn (317 U.S. 111 (1942))).
    • They also argued that this ruling jeopardized a whole bunch of other Congressional Statutes that use similar grounds.
  • Unlike the ruling in Katzenbach v. McClung (379 U.S. 294 (1964)), the Court in this case decided that they should not be maximally deferential to Congress, since they are the ones who are supposed to determine what the limits of the Interstate Commerce Clause is. This Court decided that they had the right to step in and limit Congressional power, and the Court would decide what was and wasn’t part of the Interstate Commerce Clause.
  • In a later case, (United States v. Morrison (529 U.S. 598 (2000))) the Court found that Congress could not make such laws even when there was evidence of aggregate affect on the economy.