Printz v. United States, Mack v. United States, 521 U.S. 898; S. Ct. 2365; 138 L. Ed. 2d 914 (1997)
Facts—The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act modified the Gun Control Act of 1968 by providing for a national system of criminal background checks for individuals interested in purchasing handguns. Until a national database could be established, the chief law enforcement officials (CLEOs) within a given area were directed to conduct such checks and report back within five days. Two sheriffs asserted that such direction was unconstitutional. District Courts in Montana and Arizona agreed, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
Question—Is the provision of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act mandating state law enforcement officials to conduct background checks constitutional?
Decision—No, such a mandate exceeds federal powers.
Reasons—J. Scalia (5–4). Since no constitutional provision directly addressed the question posed by this case, Scalia attempted to answer the issue by examining the “historical understanding and practice,” “the structure of the Constitution,” and “the jurisprudence of this Court.” He found that federal attempts to commandeer state officials were fairly unprecedented until recent years. Early practices indicated that states judges were sometimes expected to enforce federal laws, but do not appear to demonstrate directions to state executive officials. As to structure, the U.S. Constitu- tion “established a system of ‘dual sovereignty,’” in which the state and national governments acted on individual citizens rather than directly upon one another. This federal system was designed to protect liberty and is not undermined by the necessary and proper clause, since interference with state sovereignty would not be “proper.” Prior precedents, most notably New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992), limiting federal “take pos- session” mandates requiring states that have not otherwise complied with federal regulations to take title to radioactive wastes, further pose barriers to federal mandates to state officials. Having thus struck down the federal mandate, Scalia refused to decide whether the provision in question was severable from the rest of the law since no litigants had properly brought this issue before the Court.
J. O’Connor’s concurrence argued that the provision of the Brady Act violated the Tenth Amendment. J. Thomas’s concurrence cited both the Tenth Amendment and the Second Amendment [which he acknowledged had not been relied upon in this case], which might be read to give “a personal right to keep and bear arms.” J. Stevens’s dissent attempted a point-by-point refutation of Scalia’s views. Stevens justified the federal regulation as an exercise of its powers under the commerce and necessary and proper clauses. He argued that “when Congress exercises the powers delegated to it by the Constitution, it may impose affirmative obligations on executive and judicial officers of state and local governments as well as ordinary citizens.” He further discounted the Court’s interpretation of judicial precedents. J. Souter’s dissent relied largely on language in the Federalist Papers. J. Breyer’s dissent pointed to practices in foreign federal governments that tended to support the right of the national government to seek implementation of its laws through state constituent authorities.