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COURT REJECTS BAN ON GUNS NEAR SCHOOLS

The Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a federal law that bans possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school, saying Congress lacked the authority to enact it.

Ruling 5-4 in a Texas case, the court said the law does not fall within Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce.The 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act "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," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.

States have the primary authority to enact and enforce criminal laws, the court said. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in a concurring opinion that more than 40 states already outlaw gun possession on or near school grounds.

Congress can enact laws under its power to regulate interstate commerce only to regulate activity that "substantially" affects such commerce, the court said.

The court rejected the Clinton administration's argument that gun possession near schools may result in violent crime, which in turn can harm the national economy.

"Under the government's `national productivity' reasoning, Congress could regulate any activity that it found was related to the economic productivity of individual citizens: family law . . . for example," the chief justice wrote.

"If we were to accept the government's arguments, we are hard-pressed to posit any activity by an individual that Congress is without power to regulate," Rehnquist wrote.

Wednesday's decision denied the government's bid to reinstate a former San Antonio high school student's conviction for carrying a gun to school.

Alfonso Lopez Jr. said he was given the gun to deliver to someone else for $40 to use in what Lopez described as a "gang war."

More than 200,000 children carry firearms to school every day, according to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., the sponsor of the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act.

Sixty-five students and six school employees were shot and killed at U.S. schools during the five years before the law was enacted, according to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

But a federal appeals court threw out Lopez's conviction for bringing a .38-caliber handgun and five bullets to school in March 1992. He had been sentenced to six months in prison.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the Constitution allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce. But the appeals court said the school gun law was invalid because it did not spell out how gun possession near schools affects interstate commerce.

The Clinton administration argued that gun-related violence at schools harms the national economy by making it hard for schools to function.

Lopez's lawyer said almost any activity can be described as affecting interstate commerce, but the 1990 law's connection was too weak.

Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed.

Rehnquist wrote that Lopez "was a local student at a local school; there is no indication that he had recently moved in interstate commerce."

If Congress could regulate activities that harm the educational environment, it also could directly regulate schools - perhaps even by mandating a federal school curriculum, the chief justice added.

Joining Rehnquist's opinion along with Kennedy were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Writing for the four, Breyer contended the school gun law "falls well within the scope of the commerce power" granted to Congress by the Constitution.

"Upholding this legislation would do no more than simply recognize that Congress had a `rational basis' for finding a significant connection between guns in or near schools and (through their effect on education) the interstate and foreign commerce they threaten," Breyer wrote.