The Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Brady handgun control act Friday, ruling that Congress does not have the power to order state and local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers.
The court did not address the other main provision of the handgun law, the requirement that gun buyers face a five-day waiting period. But without simultaneous background checks, the waiting period in many states will not be as effective to screen gun sales.
In a ringing affirmation of states’ rights to curb federal regulatory powers, the court ruled, “The federal government may neither issue directives requiring the states to address particular problems, nor command the states’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.
“Such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 5-4 majority.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented. Stevens chided the majority for using “colorful hyperbole” and said the court’s reading of the Constitution was “misguided.”
The Brady act “is more comparable to a statute requiring local police officers to report the identity of missing children” to the Justice Department “than to an offensive federal command to a sovereign state,” wrote Stevens.
And Breyer noted one ironic possibility of Friday’s decision: “Why, or how, would what the majority sees as a constitutional alternative - the creation of a new federal gun-law bureaucracy or the expansion of an existing federal bureaucracy - better promote either state sovereignty or individual liberty?” he asked.
The decision disappointed gun control supporters and the Clinton administration, which had backed the bill in Congress and defended it before the Supreme Court. President Clinton responded Friday by ordering the Justice and Treasury departments to remind local and state officials they may still voluntarily comply with the Brady law’s terms while they await the completion of the national computerized data bank scheduled to replace the local background checks in 1998.
Twenty-seven states already have gun control statutes as strict or stricter than the Brady law, and so will not be affected by Friday’s ruling. But others will.
Sarah Brady, the head of Handgun Control and the wife of former White House press secretary and gun victim James S. Brady, said she was heartened that most of the law remained intact. “This was not a gun control ruling. This was on the Tenth Amendment,” she said.
But Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, which strongly opposed the Brady law, hailed the ruling, saying, “We feel vindicated by this decision.”
Friday’s decision should come as “no surprise,” said Scalia. The court struck down a law in 1995 that banned firearm possession near schools and said in 1992 that the federal government cannot order states to carry out federal policy and accept low-level nuclear waste.
And on Wednesday, the court overthrew the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying Congress had exceeded its constitutional powers when giving religious groups a broad exception from the mandates of state and local authorities.
The Brady law was the first major gun control law to be passed by Congress in more than two decades, and only after repeated defeats of gun control lobbyists by their NRA counterparts.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in 1993. It was named in honor of the former press chief, who was left disabled after being shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Under the law, local law enforcement officials were required to perform background checks within five days after being notified by a licensed gun dealer of the pending sale of a handgun. The five-day waiting period and the background checks were designed to reveal if the buyer is a convicted criminal or drug user, mentally imbalanced, or subject to a legal restraining order.
The constitutional issue raised by the law’s opponents is not based on the rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms but on whether the Constitution gives Congress the authority to assign federal duties to local officials.
Still, Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion in the case, said he would like to see the court take up the Second Amendment issue raised by gun control foes, for which he showed sympathy.
Former Sheriff Richard Mack of Arizona and Sheriff Jay Printz of Montana challenged the Brady law in separate cases that were combined before the high court. The two rural sheriffs said their small staffs did not have the resources to perform the background checks required by the law. Mack, for example, had 12 officers to patrol a county the size of Connecticut.
In oral arguments last December, the Clinton administration defended the Brady law, saying the background checks were in the historic tradition of laws that require state and local authorities to collect federal taxes, compile statistics on traffic fatalities, report missing children, register immigrants, or administer the military draft.