Facts: Congress passed a statute (the “Gun-Free School Zones
Act of 1990”) providing for federal criminal sanctions against people who went
into a “school zone” with a gun. The
defendant was caught with a gun on school premises and was charged under the
federal law. The defendant challenged
the statute as unconstitutional. In
particular, he argued that banning guns from schools wasn’t one of the powers
enumerated to the federal legislature in Article I of the Constitution. The district court didn’t buy the argument,
saying that the power of the statute was allowed under the Commerce Clause. The
defendant ultimately was convicted. He
appealed his conviction to the Fifth Circuit, which overturned the conviction,
saying that the statute went beyond the bounds of the Commerce Clause. The
Issue: Is the Act constitutional? In other words, is Congress given the power by the Constitution to regulate guns in schools under the Commerce Clause?
Rule: The Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court such that Congress has three broad areas of power under the Commerce Clause: (1) to “regulate the use of channels of interstate commerce”, (2) “to regulate and protect the instrumentalities” or “persons or things” in interstate commerce even if they only relate to “intrastate activities”, and (3) to regulate activities “having a substantial relation to interstate commerce”.
Analysis: The majority finds that if the Gun-Free School Zone statute has a constitutional basis, it must be in the third area of power. So the question is whether the statute regulates activities that are related to interstate commerce. The Court sets down new precedent in declaring that such activities must “substantially affect” interstate commerce and not just “affect” it.
The Court finds that the statute has nothing to do with commerce. There is also no requirement in the statute that the offense punished has some relationship to commerce. Even if there was that requirement, it would have to be proven in each case beyond a reasonable doubt that there was sufficient connection between the offense and the regulation of interstate commerce.
The Court rejects the government’s argument that firearms in schools are actually substantially related to interstate commerce. The Court reasons that if guns in schools are related, then pretty much anything can be related, including stuff like marriage, divorce, child custody, and “direct regulation of education”. The Court figures that the Framers couldn’t have possibly meant for the Commerce Clause power to be this broad.
Conclusion: The Court affirms the decision of the Fifth Circuit and finds the statute unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.
In the Gun Free School Zones
Act of 1990, Congress made it a federal offense "for any individual
knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has
reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone." 18 U.S.C. § 922(q)(1)(A)
(1988 ed., Supp. V). The Act neither regulates a commercial activity nor
contains a requirement that the possession be connected in any way to
interstate commerce. We hold that the Act exceeds the authority of Congress
"[t]o regulate Commerce . . . among the several States . . . ."
A federal grand jury indicted respondent on one count of knowing possession of a firearm at a school zone, in violation of §922(q). Respondent moved to dismiss his federal indictment on the ground that §922(q) "is unconstitutional as it is beyond the power of Congress to legislate control over our public schools." The District Court denied the motion, concluding that §922(q) "is a constitutional exercise of Congress' well defined power to regulate activities in and affecting commerce, and the `business' of elementary, middle and high schools . . . affects interstate commerce." App. to Pet. for Cert. 55a. Respondent waived his right to a jury trial. The District Court conducted a bench trial, found him guilty of violating §922(q), and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment and two years' supervised release.
On appeal, respondent challenged his conviction based on his claim that §922(q) exceeded Congress' power to legislate under the Commerce Clause. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed and reversed respondent's conviction. It held that, in light of what it characterized as insufficient congressional findings and legislative history, "section 922(q), in the full reach of its terms, is invalid as beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause." 2 F. 3d 1342, 1367-1368 (1993). Because of the importance of the issue, we granted certiorari, 511 U. S. ___ (1994), and we now affirm.
We start with first
principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of enumerated powers.
The Constitution delegates to
Congress the power "[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among
the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."
"Commerce, undoubtedly, is traffic, but it is something more: it is intercourse. It describes the commercial intercourse between nations, and parts of nations, in all its branches, and is regulated by prescribing rules for carrying on that intercourse."
The commerce power "is
the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to
be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in
itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations,
other than are prescribed in the constitution."
"It is not intended to say that these words comprehend that commerce, which is completely internal, which is carried on between man and man in a State, or between different parts of the same State, and which does not extend to or affect other States. Such a power would be inconvenient, and is certainly unnecessary.
"Comprehensive as the
word `among' is, it may very properly be restricted to that commerce which
concerns more States than one. . . . The enumeration presupposes something not
enumerated; and that something, if we regard the language or the subject of the
sentence, must be the exclusively internal commerce of a State."
For nearly a century
thereafter, the Court's Commerce Clause decisions dealt but rarely with the
extent of Congress' power, and almost entirely with the Commerce Clause as a
limit on state legislation that discriminated against interstate commerce. See,
e.g., Veazie v. Moor, 14 How. 568, 573-575 (1853) (upholding a state created
steamboat monopoly because it involved regulation of wholly internal commerce);
Kidd v. Pearson, 128 U.S. 1, 17, 20-22 (1888) (upholding a state prohibition on
the manufacture of intoxicating liquor because the commerce power "does
not comprehend the purely domestic commerce of a State which is carried on
between man and man within a State or between different parts of the same
State"); see also L. Tribe, American Constitutional Law 306 (2d ed. 1988).
Under this line of precedent, the Court held that certain categories of
activity such as "production," "manufacturing," and
"mining" were within the province of state governments, and thus were
beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause. See Wickard v. Filburn,
In 1887, Congress enacted the
Interstate Commerce Act, 24 Stat. 379, and in 1890, Congress enacted the
Sherman Antitrust Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. These
laws ushered in a new era of federal regulation under the commerce power. When
cases involving these laws first reached this Court, we imported from our
negative Commerce Clause cases the approach that Congress could not regulate
activities such as "production," "manufacturing," and
"mining." See, e.g.,
In A. L. A. Schecter Poultry
Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495, 550 (1935), the Court struck down
regulations that fixed the hours and wages of individuals employed by an
intrastate business because the activity being regulated related to interstate
commerce only indirectly. In doing so, the Court characterized the distinction
between direct and indirect effects of intrastate transactions upon interstate
commerce as "a fundamental one, essential to the maintenance of our
Two years later, in the
watershed case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937),
the Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act against a Commerce Clause
challenge, and in the process, departed from the distinction between
"direct" and "indirect" effects on interstate commerce.
"The power of Congress
over interstate commerce is not confined to the regulation of commerce among
the states. It extends to those activities intrastate which so affect
interstate commerce or the exercise of the power of Congress over it as to make
regulation of them appropriate means to the attainment of a legitimate end, the
exercise of the granted power of Congress to regulate interstate
In Wickard v. Filburn, the
Court upheld the application of amendments to the Agricultural Adjustment Act
of 1938 to the production and consumption of home grown wheat. 317
"[E]ven if appellee's
activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still,
whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a substantial economic
effect on interstate commerce, and this irrespective of whether such effect is
what might at some earlier time have been defined as `direct' or `indirect.'
The Wickard Court emphasized
that although Filburn's own contribution to the demand for wheat may have been
trivial by itself, that was not "enough to remove him from the scope of
federal regulation where, as here, his contribution, taken together with that
of many others similarly situated, is far from trivial."
Jones & Laughlin Steel, Darby, and Wickard ushered in an era of Commerce Clause jurisprudence that greatly expanded the previously defined authority of Congress under that Clause. In part, this was a recognition of the great changes that had occurred in the way business was carried on in this country. Enterprises that had once been local or at most regional in nature had become national in scope. But the doctrinal change also reflected a view that earlier Commerce Clause cases artificially had constrained the authority of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
But even these modern era
precedents which have expanded congressional power under the Commerce Clause
confirm that this power is subject to outer limits. In Jones & Laughlin
Steel, the Court warned that the scope of the interstate commerce power
"must be considered in the light of our dual system of government and may
not be extended so as to embrace effects upon interstate commerce so indirect
and remote that to embrace them, in view of our complex society, would
effectually obliterate the distinction between what is national and what is
local and create a completely centralized government." 301
Consistent with this
structure, we have identified three broad categories of activity that Congress
may regulate under its commerce power. Perez v.
Within this final category,
admittedly, our case law has not been clear whether an activity must
"affect" or "substantially affect" interstate commerce in
order to be within Congress' power to regulate it under the Commerce Clause.
Compare Preseault v. ICC, 494
We now turn to consider the power of Congress, in the light of this framework, to enact §922(q). The first two categories of authority may be quickly disposed of: §922(q) is not a regulation of the use of the channels of interstate commerce, nor is it an attempt to prohibit the interstate transportation of a commodity through the channels of commerce; nor can §922(q) be justified as a regulation by which Congress has sought to protect an instrumentality of interstate commerce or a thing in interstate commerce. Thus, if §922(q) is to be sustained, it must be under the third category as a regulation of an activity that substantially affects interstate commerce.
First, we have upheld a wide variety of congressional Acts regulating intrastate economic activity where we have concluded that the activity substantially affected interstate commerce. Examples include the regulation of intrastate coal mining; Hodel, supra, intrastate extortionate credit transactions, Perez, supra, restaurants utilizing substantial interstate supplies, McClung, supra, inns and hotels catering to interstate guests, Heart of Atlanta Motel, supra, and production and consumption of home grown wheat, Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942). These examples are by no means exhaustive, but the pattern is clear. Where economic activity substantially affects interstate commerce, legislation regulating that activity will be sustained.
Even Wickard, which is
perhaps the most far reaching example of Commerce Clause authority over
intrastate activity, involved economic activity in a way that the possession of
a gun in a school zone does not. Roscoe Filburn operated a small farm in
"One of the primary
purposes of the Act in question was to increase the market price of wheat and
to that end to limit the volume thereof that could affect the market. It can
hardly be denied that a factor of such volume and variability as home consumed
wheat would have a substantial influence on price and market conditions. This
may arise because being in marketable condition such wheat overhangs the market
and, if induced by rising prices, tends to flow into the market and check price
increases. But if we assume that it is never marketed, it supplies a need of
the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open
market. Home grown wheat in this sense competes with wheat in commerce."
Section 922(q) is a criminal statute that by its terms has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic enterprise, however broadly one might define those terms. [n.3] Section 922(q) is not an essential part of a larger regulation of economic activity, in which the regulatory scheme could be undercut unless the intrastate activity were regulated. It cannot, therefore, be sustained under our cases upholding regulations of activities that arise out of or are connected with a commercial transaction, which viewed in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.
Second, §922(q) contains no
jurisdictional element which would ensure, through case by case inquiry, that
the firearm possession in question affects interstate commerce. For example, in
Although as part of our
independent evaluation of constitutionality under the Commerce Clause we of
course consider legislative findings, and indeed even congressional committee
findings, regarding effect on interstate commerce, see, e.g., Preseault v. ICC,
494 U.S. 1, 17 (1990), the Government concedes that "[n]either the statute
nor its legislative history contain[s] express congressional findings regarding
the effects upon interstate commerce of gun possession in a school zone."
The Government argues that
Congress has accumulated institutional expertise regarding the regulation of
firearms through previous enactments. Cf. Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448
The Government's essential
contention, in fine, is that we may determine here that §922(q) is valid
because possession of a firearm in a local school zone does indeed
substantially affect interstate commerce. Brief for
We pause to consider the
implications of the Government's arguments. The Government admits, under its
"costs of crime" reasoning, that Congress could regulate not only all
violent crime, but all activities that might lead to violent crime, regardless
of how tenuously they relate to interstate commerce. See Tr. of Oral
Although Justice Breyer argues that acceptance of the Government's rationales would not authorize a general federal police power, he is unable to identify any activity that the States may regulate but Congress may not. Justice Breyer posits that there might be some limitations on Congress' commerce power such as family law or certain aspects of education. Post, at 10-11. These suggested limitations, when viewed in light of the dissent's expansive analysis, are devoid of substance.
Justice Breyer focuses, for the most part, on the threat that firearm possession in and near schools poses to the educational process and the potential economic consequences flowing from that threat. Post, at 5-9. Specifically, the dissent reasons that (1) gun related violence is a serious problem; (2) that problem, in turn, has an adverse effect on classroom learning; and (3) that adverse effect on classroom learning, in turn, represents a substantial threat to trade and commerce. Post, at 9. This analysis would be equally applicable, if not more so, to subjects such as family law and direct regulation of education.
For instance, if Congress can, pursuant to its Commerce Clause power, regulate activities that adversely affect the learning environment, then, a fortiori, it also can regulate the educational process directly. Congress could determine that a school's curriculum has a-significant" effect on the extent of classroom learning. As a result, Congress could mandate a federal curriculum for local elementary and secondary schools because what is taught in local schools has a significant "effect on classroom learning," cf. post, at 9, and that, in turn, has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.
Justice Breyer rejects our reading of precedent and argues that "Congress . . . could rationally conclude that schools fall on the commercial side of the line." Post, at 16. Again, Justice Breyer's rationale lacks any real limits because, depending on the level of generality, any activity can be looked upon as commercial. Under the dissent's rationale, Congress could just as easily look at child rearing as "fall[ing] on the commercial side of the line" because it provides a "valuable service--namely, to equip [children] with the skills they need to survive in life and, more specifically, in the workplace." Ibid. We do not doubt that Congress has authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate numerous commercial activities that substantially affect interstate commerce and also affect the educational process. That authority, though broad, does not include the authority to regulate each and every aspect of local schools.
Admittedly, a determination
whether an intrastate activity is commercial or noncommercial may in some cases
result in legal uncertainty. But, s o long as Congress' authority is limited to
those powers enumerated in the Constitution, and so long as those enumerated
powers are interpreted as having judicially enforceable outer limits,
congressional legislation under the Commerce Clause always will engender
"legal uncertainty." Post, at 17. As Chief Justice
government is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers. The
principle, that it can exercise only the powers granted to it . . . is now
universally admitted. But the question respecting the extent of the powers
actually granted, is perpetually arising, and will probably continue to arise,
as long as our system shall exist."
See also Gibbons v. Ogden, 9
Wheat., at 195 ("The enumeration presupposes something not
enumerated"). The Constitution mandates this uncertainty by withholding
from Congress a plenary police power that would authorize enactment of every
type of legislation.
In Jones & Laughlin
"There is a view of
causation that would obliterate the distinction of what is national and what is
local in the activities of commerce. Motion at the outer rim is communicated
perceptibly, though minutely, to recording instruments at the center. A society
such as ours `is an elastic medium which transmits all tremors throughout its
territory; the only question is of their size.' " 295
These are not precise formulations, and in the nature of things they cannot be. But we think they point the way to a correct decision of this case. The possession of a gun in a local school zone is in no sense an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, substantially affect any sort of interstate commerce. Respondent was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce, and there is no requirement that his possession of the firearm have any concrete tie to interstate commerce.
To uphold the Government's contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States. Admittedly, some of our prior cases have taken long steps down that road, giving great deference to congressional action. See supra, at 8. The broad language in these opinions has suggested the possibility of additional expansion, but we decline here to proceed any further. To do so would require us to conclude that the Constitution's enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated, cf. Gibbons v. Ogden, supra, at 195, and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local, cf. Jones & Laughlin Steel, supra, at 30. This we are unwilling to do.
For the foregoing reasons the judgment of the Court of Appeals is
1 The term "school zone" is defined as "in, or on the grounds of, a public, parochial or private school" or "within a distance of 1,000 feet from the grounds of a public, parochial or private school." §921(a)(25).
2 See also Hodel, 452 U. S., at 311 ("[S]imply because Congress may conclude that a particular activity substantially affects interstate commerce does not necessarily make it so") (Rehnquist, J., concurring in judgment); Heart of Atlanta Motel, 392 U. S., at 273 ("[W]hether particular operations affect interstate commerce sufficiently to come under the constitutional power of Congress to regulate them is ultimately a judicial rather than a legislative question, and can be settled finally only by this Court") (Black, J., concurring).
3 Under our federal system,
the " `States possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the
criminal law.' " Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507
4 We note that on