For Schools

High School Students
Federalism, School Safety, and Congress

Here is a lesson on federalism that a resource person could do in a class period by focusing closely on the analysis and discussion of the case itself (steps 4-10), or be done by a teacher in two or three class periods with a fuller discussion of federalism issues.


In 1990, Congress passed a law that required schools to take certain steps to reduce violence. Federal funding was made available for schools to implement certain programs. Part of this law made it a federal offense to bring a weapon on or within 1,000 feet of school grounds. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenged the constitutionality of this law. A lower federal court agreed that the law was unconstitutional, not because it violated the Second Amendment or the Tenth Amendment, but because Congress exceeded its power under the Constitution's commerce clause.


As a result of this lessons, students will:

  • Learn of federalism and Congress's power under the commerce clause
  • Learn about the Supreme Court process
  • Analyze Supreme Court opinions and develop a position on an opinion
  • Develop student awareness of school-safety issues

Time Needed: 2-3 class periods for full discussion, 1 period for discussion of the case.

Materials Needed: Student Handout 1 (.pdf) and Student Handout 2 (.pdf)


1. Have students look for news articles that discuss sharing of (or transfers of) power between the federal government and the states; increases in violence; and gun control. Crime and gun-control issues are in the news quite often. You may easily focus this lesson on the Supreme Court's role or the growth of the federal government following Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.

2. Throughout the lesson, remember that vocabulary development is important. Make sure students understand any difficult words.

3. Tell students that this case involves the question of federalism. Define federalism, and relate it to current developments in the news. Inform students that the Constitution authorizes the Congress to make laws only in areas granted to it. Some lawmaking authority was left to the states. This division of authority between the federal and state governments is a major aspect of federalism.

4. Distribute the case ( Handout 1) and two opinions ( Handout 2) and read them together. Ask: What is the issue in this case? What must the Court decide? (The issue is whether Congress exceeded its commerce clause authority to regulate interstate commerce when it prohibited the possession of firearms near schools.) Have students decide whether they agree with Opinion A or Opinion B as well as why they agree. Conduct a poll by a show of hands to determine which opinion students agree with.

5. Divide the class into groups of five or six. Give each group an opinion to support. Each group should assign a recorder to write down the group's ideas and a spokesperson to report the arguments to the class. Have groups identify each argument in the opinion and rank the arguments from most to least important. Tell students they are free to add arguments supporting the opinion. If some students in the group do not agree with the opinion, ask them to think as lawyers would and to help defend the opinion.

6. Tell students that they have seven minutes to list the arguments. Circulate, giving any needed instruction, or prompt discussion with questions.

7. Begin class discussion by asking the spokesperson from a group supporting Opinion A to give its highest ranked argument. Next ask a spokesperson supporting Opinion B to respond to the argument given for Opinion A, and so on. As the arguments are being elicited, write them on the board under "Opinion A" or "Opinion B."

8. Continue the discussion, ensuring that students from each group have a chance to contribute. When the arguments have been exhausted, congratulate students on their analysis and respond to their arguments.

9. Explain that one of the opinions summarizes the Supreme Court's majority and concurring opinions. Ask students to identify which one this is.

10. Tell students that the Supreme Court decided this case in 1995 and held that Congress had exceeded its authority under the commerce clause in attempting to regulate a local activity—education—without providing factual findings that detailed the connection between the proscribed activity and interstate commerce. The Court noted that the Act could not be upheld as a regulation of purely commercial or economic activity because it did not relate to the business or commercial aspects of gun sales. The Court, however, observed that the act could be upheld if the conduct Congress sought to regulate could be shown to be substantially related to interstate commerce. While acknowledging this test, the Court rejected the government's efforts to provide the necessary substantial relationship between the possession of a firearm on school grounds and interstate commerce. The Court was unconvinced by the U. S. government's argument that firearm possession on school grounds would create violent crimes that would cost the national economy in one of two ways, either of which could provide the constitutionally required substantial relationship to interstate commerce. Following Lopez, Congress will now have to make findings that commerce will be impacted by the legislation. A finding is a determination of a bill's intended effect, often found in its preamble or in the records of debate.

The Supreme Court did not base its decision on either the Second or Tenth Amendments.

This article was written by Frank Kopecky, a professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois—Springfield and editor of the Illinois State Bar Association Law-Related Education Newsletter. It first appeared in Update on Law-Related Education, 19.3, © 1995 American Bar Association.

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