U.S v Lopez (1995)

The 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act eventually lead to U.S v Lopez being adjudicated by the Supreme Court. Alfonzo Lopez was a 12th grade high school student in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into his high school with a concealed firearm, leading to his arrest under Texas State law (Oyez). However, due to the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, his charges under state law were dismissed. Federal agents then charged Lopez for breaking a federal law and sought to prosecute him under federal through the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act. This law states “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that he or she knows… is a school zone” (Hall).  He was prosecuted in federal court leading him to be sentenced to six months in prison with two years of probation (Oyez).

After his sentence, Lopez appealed his case the 5th Circuit Court, where they reversed conviction on the grounds that Congress exceeded the power granted to them through the Commerce Clause. Following this ruling the United States petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari (Hall). The Supreme Court accepted the case and had to decide whether or not “the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act, forbidding individuals from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, was unconstitutional because it exceeds the power of Congress to legislate under the Commerce Clause?” (Oyez). The Supreme Court ruled that, yes, the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act that forbid individuals from knowingly carrying firearms into school zones was unconstitutional. The Court ruled in this manner, because the carrying of a firearm in a “school zone is not an economic activity” that would have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, even if it were to be repeated in other places throughout the country (Oyez).

The holding by the Supreme Court remains significant to this day. Congress through the Commerce Clause cannot propagate a criminal statute such as the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act that has nothing to do with commerce or economic activity of any kind. The commerce power provides three areas of activity that Congress may regulate. The areas include “the channels of interstate commerce, the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, and activities having a substantial effect upon interstate commerce” (Schwinn). U.S v Lopez falls under the third area of the Commerce Clause. The federal government made no mention of the substantial effect guns in school zones would have on interstate commerce. The Court ruled against the federal government in this case, choosing to limit the power of the federal government. Because of the ruling in this case Congress must show that any activity they attempt to regulate through the Commerce Clause is an economic activity and it has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

In NFIB v Sebelius the Chief Justice Roberts, who writes the majority opinion cites U.S v Lopez four times. The first of which Justice Robert uses to explain the “Congress has a broad authority under the commerce clause” (NFIB v Sebelius). Justice Roberts uses U.S v Lopez to disallow the individual mandate in the Affordable Healthcare Act through the Commerce Clause. Justice Roberts examines NFIB v Sebelius through the lens of U.S v Lopez saying, “we should… consider the implications of the Government’s arguments when confronted with such new

conceptions of federal power” (NFIB v Sebelius). Roberts recognizes the arguments used by the Government in U.S v Lopez were similar to those used by the Government in NFIB v Sebelius and like the outcome of U.S v Lopez the Court ruled against the Government in NFIB v Sebelius. Justice Roberts goes on to mention that despite the many precedents in the court regarding the expansion of the commerce clause they all have one thing in common “activity”. The word activity holds the key to NFIB v Sebelius. The Court held that the Congress did not possess the power to regulate inactivity; Justice Roberts’ opinion leads to the conclusion that he relied on U.S v Lopez to come to his conclusion. U.S v Lopez is a crucial precedent used by the court in order to arrive at their final decision in NFIB v Sebeilus.


Hall, Matthew E. K. “The Nature of Supreme Court Power.” Google Books. Cambridge University Press, 06 Dec. 2010. Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=bLDmbwUTm0wC&pg=PA91&lpg=>

(Hall examines the way U.S v Lopez was adjudicated and the steps it took in route to the Supreme Court.)

National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, 11-393 U.S. (2012).                 (Supreme Court decision and opinions of the case.)

Oyez. N.p., n.d. “United States v Lopez.” Web. 08 Nov. 2015. <https://www.oyez.org/cases/1994/93-1260>.

(This source examines the case facts, issues, and holdings concerning U.S v Lopez.)


Schwinn, Steven D. Contemporary Commerce Clause. [Electronic Resource]. n.p.: Minneapolis, MN : Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, 2009. GEORGIA STATE UNIV’s Catalog. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

(This source examined the nature of the Commerce Clause. The source was used to examine the three areas through which Congress could use the Commerce Clause.)


United States v. Lopez (93-1260), 514 U.S. 549 (1995).

(Supreme Court decision and opinions of the case.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *