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U.S. v Lopez (1995)



In March 1992, Alfonso Lopez Jr. brought a .38 caliber handgun to Edison High School in San Antonio, Texas. School authorities, responding to an anonymous tip, quickly apprehended Lopez. When confronted by officers, Lopez admitted that he had the gun. The Edison senior was then arrested for violating a Texas statute that banned firearms on school property. At trial, however, prosecuting attorneys dropped all state charges and charged Lopez with violating the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. This recently-passed act made it illegal “for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm in a school zone.” Lopez was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison and two years of probation.

After receiving his sentence, Lopez appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. His lawyers argued that Congress had overstepped its power by passing the Gun-Free School Zones Act. In particular, they said that school regulations must be left to state and local governments. Federal prosecutors pushed back, however, arguing that the U.S. Constitution provided Congress broad powers “to regulate commerce … among the several states.” As a result, prosecutors argued, Congress had the right to ban guns from school grounds because guns were traded in interstate commerce. Moreover, guns were directly linked to violent acts, which would disrupt learning and discourage school attendance, thereby negatively affecting commerce. - Allura Guerra


Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


Did the Constitution's Commerce Clause permit Congress to pass the Gun-Free Schools Zone Act of 1990? 

Citation and Decision

United States vs. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995)  | Full Decision


U.S. attorney Drew Days claimed that gun violence in schools could affect not merely one school but many across the US and should therefore be regulated by Commerce. Lopez stood by the argument that the Gun Free School Zones Act represented an overreach of Congressional power. On April 26, 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision. Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas sided with Lopez and Justices Breyer, Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg sided with the United States. The Gun Free Zone Act was found to be unconstitutional because it had no direct relation to interstate commerce and therefore could not be linked to the Commerce Clause. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist commented on the case, claiming that while a gun in a school zone was a criminal act it could only be regulated by state and local government. Justice Clarence Thomas commented that Congress could not be granted the ability to create laws in areas where states had sufficient jurisdiction. In contrast, Justice Stephen Breyer maintained that education was directly linked to the nation’s economy and thus could be regulated under the commerce clause.


Discussion Questions


1. What was the Gun Free Zone Act and how did it come about?

2. What led to the defendant being arrested on school property?

3. What are the main arguments presented in this case?

4. Why was the commerce clause relevant to this case?

5. What points did the federal government pose to support their claim that guns in schools affected interstate commerce?


6. What was the outcome of the case?


Oyez: U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

Bill of Rights Institute: U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

CSPAN: U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

The Supreme Court: U.S. v. Lopez (1995)


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