The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 made the knowing possession of a firearm in a school zone a crime under federal law. When a Texas high school senior named Alfonso Lopez brought a handgun to school, he was arrested and charged with violating the act.
Lopez was convicted and sentenced to prison. Lopez appealed his conviction, arguing that Congress lacked the constitutional authority needed to pass the law.
The United States Supreme Court ultimately took up the case to determine whether the Commerce Clause provided Congress with sufficient power to pass the act.
The federal government argued that gun violence near schools created nationwide costs, impaired schools’ ability to educate students, and impacted people’s willingness to travel. Thus, according to the government, there was a rational basis for Congress to conclude that guns in schools had a substantial effect on interstate commerce.
But the United States Supreme Court disagreed in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995). By its very terms, the act made no mention of commerce and included no requirement that federal prosecutors demonstrate a connection between gun ownership and interstate commerce in any given criminal case. Thus, ultimately, the Court concluded that holding the act a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power would be tantamount to declaring that power unlimited.
It’s worth noting that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was subsequently amended to limit its application to firearms that had moved in or impacted interstate commerce, and it remains in effect.
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