United States v. Lopez

Compelling Question

Are there limits to the power of the Commerce clause and thus the regulatory power of Congress? And if so, how does this affect you?

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The US Congress should be able to pass a law forbidding individuals from carrying guns in a school zone

Facts of the case

Alfonzo Lopez, a 12th grade high school student, carried a concealed weapon into his San Antonio, Texas high school. He was charged under Texas law with firearm possession on school premises. The next day, the state charges were dismissed after federal agents charged Lopez with violating a federal criminal statute, the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act forbids "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows...is a school zone." Lopez was found guilty following a bench trial and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and two years' supervised release.


Is the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, forbidding individuals from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, unconstitutional because it exceeds the power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?


Yes. The possession of a gun in a local school zone is not an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The law is a criminal statute that has nothing to do with "commerce" or any sort of economic activity.


Fun Facts

  • After a half century of the expansion of federal power, the SCOTUS set a limit on Congress' use of the Commerce Clause.
  • 38% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
  • 18 states allow an adult to carry a loaded gun on school grounds.
  • More than a third of the states already allow teachers and other adults to carry guns to school. In most cases, all you need is the equivalent of a note from the principal — you usually don't even need law enforcement approval.
  • Individual packs, which contain one 1.59-ounce serving, contain 30 to 35 candies. M&M's candies are also sold in bulk bags. A 5-pound bag contains approximately 2500 candies, while a 10-pound bag contains approximately 5000 pieces.
  • Here are the 18 states that allow adults to carry loaded weapons onto school grounds with few or minor conditions:
  • Alabama (which bans possessing a weapon on school grounds only if the carrier has "intent to do bodily harm")
  • California (with approval of the superintendent)
  • Connecticut (with approval of "school officials")
  • Hawaii (no specific law)
  • Idaho (with school trustees' approval)
  • Iowa (with "authorization")
  • Kentucky (with school board approval)
  • Massachusetts (with approval of the school board or principal)
  • Mississippi (with school board approval)
  • Montana (with school trustees' permission)
  • New Hampshire (ban applies only to pupils, not adults)
  • New Jersey (with approval from the school's "governing officer")
  • New York (with the school's approval)
  • Oregon (with school board approval)
  • Rhode Island (with a state concealed weapons permit)
  • Texas (with the school's permission)
  • Utah (with approval of the "responsible school administrator")
  • Wyoming (as long as it's not concealed)


  • U.S. v. Lopez at Oyez
  • Listen to the Oral Arguments and the Opinion Announcement
To uphold the Government’s contentions here, we 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. 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, and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local. This we are unwilling to do.
— Chief Justice William Rehnquist


Use all the sources above to fill in the Landmark Court Cases Rubric Below:

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
— The Commerce Clause in its entirety

For your consideration

Education, although far more than a matter of economics, has long been inextricably intertwined with the Nation’s economy…. guns in the hands of six percent of inner-city high school students and gun-related violence throughout a city’s schools must threaten the trade and commerce that those schools support.
— Justice Stephen Bryer
  1. Do you believe, like Justice Beyer (see above quote), that the Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990 is constitutional under the Commerce Clause?
  2. What are some things the Commerce Clause has been used to regulate?
  3. What is one consequence of the fact that this case limits, for the first time in a half century, the power of the Congress to use the Commerce Clause?
  4. Read these two different interpretations of the Commerce Clause and explain which one you agree with more.
  5. Do you agree with the Supreme Court's majority ruling in U.S. v. Lopez?

Creative time

  • Some would say that the Commerce Clause has been the most powerful weapon in the expansion of the power of the Congress. If you had to list all the weapons in Congress' arsenal, what would you rank as the top five?
  • Imagine that you wanted a judicial conservative to have to uphold the constitutionality of Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990. Rewrite the Commerce Clause so that it has the power for a judicial conservative to allow Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990.
  • Here are the words of the Commerce Clause, "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;" Now write a rap, rhyme, song, or limerick about the Commerce Clause.
  • Write your own opinion for the case of U.S. v. Lopez

Civic Action

Contact your US House Representative. Ask them to initiate a constitutional amendment to rewrite the Commerce Clause so that it is either more expansive or more restrictive in the powers it gives Congress. 

Compelling Question Revisited

Are there limits to the power of the Commerce clause and thus the regulatory power of Congress? And if so, how does this affect you?