President Clinton said Saturday that he was terribly disappointed by Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the federal ban on gun possession within 1,000 feet of schools.
The president ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to recommend ways to get around the decision, perhaps by linking federal education aid to states’ enforcement of such bans.
“This Supreme Court decision could condemn more of our children to going to schools where there are guns,” Clinton said in his weekly radio address, in an unusually pointed presidential comment on a court ruling. “And our job is to help our children learn everything they need to get ahead in safety, not to send them to school and put them in harm’s way.
“I am determined to keep guns out of our schools. That’s what the American people want, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Clinton made his comments at the end of a week in which he repeatedly pledged to protect the public with new federal measures to combat terrorism.
The plans represent his latest effort to argue for a federal role on a contentious issue like gun control by casting himself as a defender of children’s health and safety. He has made a similar case in opposing efforts by the Republican Congress to curtail the federal school lunch program or relax environmental regulations.
“We all know that guns simply don’t belong in school, so members of Congress of both parties passed the law,” Clinton said in the speech, which he taped Friday for broadcast Saturday. “Unfortunately the Supreme Court struck down the specific law. They said the federal government couldn’t regulate that activity, because it didn’t have enough to do with interstate commerce.
“I am directing the attorney general to come back to me within a week with what action I can take to keep guns away from schools. I want the action to be constitutional, but I am determined to keep guns away from schools.
“For example, Congress could encourage states to ban guns from school zones by linking federal funds to enactment of school-zone gun bans. At least we could tie the money we have for safe schools to such a ban.”
More than 40 states have laws banning guns in or near schools. So Clinton’s order has more symbolic import than practical effect.
But it was not lost on the White House that the ruling was the first one since 1936 in which the court has overturned a federal law on the ground that it exceeded the congressional power over commerce. In 1936, at the height of the New Deal, the High Court struck down minimum-wage and maximum-hour requirements for the coal industry.
In a bitterly divided 5-4 ruling the court held that Congress acted beyond its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce five years ago, when it made possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school a federal crime.
The ruling, while overturning no precedents, nevertheless cast doubt on Congress’ ability to regulate a range of activities it has recently defined as federal crimes, including carjackings and driveby shootings.