Recent Court Decisions: Printz v. United States

Provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act Requiring State Authorities to Assist Federal Authorities in Administering the Act Violate Principles of State Sovereignty.

Printz v. United States, 117 S.Ct. ___, 61 CrL 2250, Nos. 95-1478; 95-1503 (1997).

The Act required local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on prospective gun purchasers. These were "interim provisions" that would be applicable until a federal computerized checking system went on line in a few years. The l ocal authorities were required to receive information from gun dealers about prospective handgun purchasers and "make a reasonable effort to ascertain within 5 business days" whether the sale would be lawful under the Act.

Sheriffs in counties from two states alleged that these provisions unconstitutionally forced them to administer this part of the federal regulatory scheme during the "interim period." The Court agreed in a 5-4 majority decision and an opinion wr itten by Justice Scalia. Relying upon the 10th Amendment, the Enumerated Powers Clause and the concept embodied in the Constitution of "dual sovereignties," the Court concluded that the local authorities had indeed been improperly pressed into s ervice of the federal government.

Scalia rejected a government argument that the Necessary and Proper Clause and Supremacy Clause changed this result. Those provisions, he said, do not provide an exemption to the dual sovereignty and separation of powers provisions embodied in the constit ution. Even imposition of "minimal" and temporary federal administrative duties on state officials did not satisfy the constitutional requirements, not even in the face of the obviously important federal interests that were involved in the Act's interim provisions. He rejected a balancing approach in this context.

Thus, the challenged provisions as they relate to local officials were rendered inoperative. The Court did not address the constitutionality of the Act as it applied to the responsibilities also placed on local firearms dealers.

Justice O'Connor filed a concurring opinion pointing out, among other things, that states could voluntarily cooperate with the interim provisions if they choose to do so. Another concurring opinion by Justice Thomas suggested that the Second Amendment mig ht bar federal regulation of the right of persons to possess firearms, an issue not directly involved in the case.

Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer dissented. Among the several themes interwoven into their dissenting opinions was that the Commerce Clause gave federal authority to require the limited local participation in the interim provisions.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particula r case.

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