United States v. Lopez

Following is the case brief for United States v. Lopez, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012).

Case Summary of United States v. Lopez:

  • A high school senior was convicted for bringing a gun to his school, which Congress made a federal crime under the Gun Free School Zones Act.
  • The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, finding that the federal law was unconstitutional.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, agreed.  The Court held that the law was an improper use of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause, finding that guns in schools did not have a substantial affect on interstate commerce.

United States v. Lopez Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Congress made it a federal crime to possess a firearm in a school zone under the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 (the “Act”).  In 1992, Alfonzo Lopez, Jr., a senior in high school, possessed a concealed handgun within a school zone in Texas.  He was indicted under the Act.  Lopez challenged the indictment.  The District Court denied Lopez’s motion, finding that the Act was a proper use of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.  Lopez was then tried and convicted under the Act.

Procedural History:

Lopez appealed his conviction.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Lopez’s conviction, finding that the Act went beyond Congress’s Commerce Clause power.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibits a person from knowingly carrying a gun into a school zone, unconstitutional because it exceeds Congress’s Commerce Clause authority?  Yes.


The decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The power of Congress to regulate activities under the Commerce Clause extends only to those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.  Carrying a handgun to school does not substantially affect interstate commerce.


The Court has identified three broad areas of activity that Congress, using the commerce power, may regulate:  (i) the channels of interstate commerce; (ii) the instrumentalities of interstate commerce; and (iii) any activities that have a substantial affect on interstate commerce.  The third area is most relevant to the present case.

Here, the Act has nothing to do with commerce or an economic enterprise, and it is not an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity.  In addition, the Act has no express jurisdictional element that would limit its reach to a distinct set of firearms possessions that would affect interstate commerce.  In addition, the Act has no legislative findings or history to show that it is a proper use of the commerce power.  The Government’s arguments — that school gun violence leads to nationwide crime or that an unsafe school leads to less national productivity — are unavailing.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Kennedy):

Following the evolution of the Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence, it is difficult to find any bright and clear rules.  That is because the balance of federalism requires a careful evaluation of the Commerce Clause in each individual case.  Here, absent a stronger connection to commercial activity, the Act interferes too greatly in what is typically the province of the States.

Concurring Opinion (Thomas):

The substantial-affects test used by the Court runs counter to the original understanding of the Commerce Clause.  The test, in fact, improperly gives Congress general police power.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

The Act falls well within Congress’s commerce power based on three principles:  (i) the commerce power can cover local activity provided it has a substantial affect on interstate commerce; (ii) in applying the substantial-affects test, the Court should look at the cumulative impact of the regulation; and (iii) the Court should judge if Congress had a rational basis for concluding that the regulated activity substantially impacts interstate commerce.

Based on those principles, the Act should have been upheld.  Congress had a rational basis for finding that guns in school zones could substantially effect interstate commerce because gun possession in schools is a national problem that undermines the quality of education.  The cumulative effect of poor education nationwide has a substantial impact on the nation’s economy.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter): 

Congress had a rational basis to conclude that the Act was a valid use of the commerce power.  The Court’s opinion seems to retreat back to a time when statutes were struck down based on distinctions that lacked any clarity.

Dissenting Opinion (Stevens):

Guns are articles of commerce.  Congress’s power to regulate guns at any location should be upheld under the commerce clause because guns are so dangerous.


This decision marked the Court’s departure from allowing Congress broad authority under the Commerce Clause.  Interestingly, Congress revised the Gun Free School Zones Act, adding an express interstate commerce requirement.  Lower courts have held that the revised Act is a proper exercise of Congress’s commerce power.  See, e.g., United States v. Danks, 221 F. 3rd 1037 (8th Cir. 1999).

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