TOPICS > Politics

Court Strikes Down Gun Rule

June 27, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In 1981, when a lone gunman attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, his press secretary, James Brady, was also seriously wounded. The fallout from that shooting and from several other widely publicized shooting incidents brought calls for federal legislation that would require criminal background checks on people who want to buy handguns. After much legislative controversy, a bill named after Brady was signed into law in November of 1993.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It will be step one in taking our streets back, taking our children back, reclaiming our families, and our future.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Under the Brady Bill, states could refuse to sell handguns to anyone indicted or convicted of a felony, and to those who had ever had a restraining order placed against them. The work of checking those backgrounds was given to state and local chief law enforcement officers. They were required to review the forms within five days, destroy applications of those declared eligible, and inform in writing those who were denied. But at the Graham County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack said he was too busy to do those jobs.

SHERIFF RICHARD MACK, Graham County, Arizona: We have gun problems here, gang problems here. Am I supposed to know those problems so I can check a criminal background check on someone who’s never committed a wrong in their life? Can’t do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sheriff Mack organized a gun rally to raise money to sue the federal government. He said the requirements were an infringement on states’ rights, a violation of the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states those powers not specifically given to the federal government in the Constitution.

SHERIFF RICHARD MACK: We cannot allow our constitutional rights to be trampled on like our federal government seems to be trampling on them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although many people in this Arizona community are against gun control, some are uncomfortable with the fact that their sheriff is defying the law.

WOMAN: The law says the speed limit right out here is 35 miles an hour, and I want to go 45 miles an hour. Because of the law, I have to go 35 miles an hour. If it’s the law, Richie Mack has to abide by it.

MAN: If it is part of the state law, yes, or national law, yes, he should enforce it. If he doesn’t, he ought to step down as sheriff, because he’s duty-bound to enforce all laws.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mack won his suit in federal district court, but when the case was appealed to the circuit court, he lost.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, more on today’s ruling and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: The Supreme Court’s ruling today striking down the compulsory background check provision of the Brady law was five to four. For more on the decision we’re joined by NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor, correspondent for the American Lawyer and Legal Times. On what grounds did the court uphold essentially the sheriff’s position?

STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: The constitutional rule the court articulated and reaffirmed and extended a little bit was that the federal government may not require states to enact or administer federal regulatory programs, or put such burdens on state officials. They base this first on the–they said such programs invade the reserve sovereign powers of the states, reserved to the states under the 10th Amendment and the structure of the Constitution, and the history of the founding, according to Justice Scalia’s majority opinion.

There is also another rationale–sort of supporting rationale–that the Brady law–that provision of the Brady law reduced the power of the President because if Congress–the court said–can have state officials and administer federal laws, then the President’s role as the administrator of federal laws is diminished, and that invades his power to his extent.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the court speak at all to the question about whether the federal government has the right to say who can own a gun and who can’t, I mean, the sort of guts of other parts of the Brady bill, Brady law?

STUART TAYLOR: Not at all. It’s a gun control law. This is really not a gun control decision. It’s the same logic that would have happened if it had been regulating diapers or something. It’s not based on the Second Amendment right to bear arms asserted by the National Rifle Association that just happens–in fact, the litigation was funded by the National Rifle Association to some extent, but since there’s little supporting Supreme Court precedent for attacking a law like this with the Second Amendment, they attacked it, under the Tenth Amendment they attacked it where they thought it was vulnerable, and they succeeded.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, four justices dissented. On what grounds did they dissent?

STUART TAYLOR: The principal dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens reviewed history and precedent and the Federalist Papers and concluded, contrary to Justice Scalia’s conclusion reviewing the same materials, that, in fact, the federal government has always had power to require state officials to administer federal regulatory programs at least, and the burden isn’t that great, and Justice Stevens warned suppose we have a military emergency and there aren’t any federal people out there to suddenly whip together a military draft or we have an epidemic and we suddenly need children inoculated, surely the federal government on an interim basis ought to be able to have state officials do that; that the majority seems to say no, at least not here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, they’re essentially–the majority’s essentially saying that the federal government can’t deputize local and state officials to do their administrative work.

STUART TAYLOR: And part of the underlying reason for that is it’s a cheap way for Congress to take the credit without having to tax federal taxpayers to pay for it. Hey, we took care of the gun problem, but the sheriffs are the ones who are going to have to spend their time doing it.

And that was part of the rationale Justice Scalia gave in saying no can do. If the federal government wants to have these background checks, it can pay for them, itself. It can give the states money and ask them to use that money to implement the background checks. It can have the FBI doing them. It–what it can’t do is mandate that the states have to do them on their own without supplying any incentive.

MARGARET WARNER: So the court–but the court was saying if they had structured a different way, if it had been in a quid pro quo, for getting federal money, which is very common, that’s left.

STUART TAYLOR: Yes. That’s seemingly would have been perfectly okay. There are lots of programs, and nothing in this decision really questions, as I read it, the ability for, for example–if Congress wanted to pass a law saying, okay, we’ll give the states X million dollars apiece if they will adopt laws that require these background checks on their own–in fact, some states have such laws–27 do–that would be fine. But I don’t think Congress is about to do that because the Republicans, who control Congress, didn’t like the Brady law in the first place.

MARGARET WARNER: And so the other provisions of the Brady law remain standing; the five-day waiting period, the fact–the requirement that gun dealers have to take down all this information?

STUART TAYLOR: All that remains standing, and, of course, many local law enforcement officials will voluntarily do the background checks they’ve already said; however, in November 1998, these so-called interim provisions of the Brady law expire. They all go away anyway, so these provisions would expire in 1998, even if the court had not struck them down and what’s supposed to take their place is a so-called instant computer background check that–where a gun dealer would be able to call some federal government number and do it right away without the waiting period.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Stuart. Thanks.