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Printz v. United States

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that a congressional statute intruded on the rights of the states when it required local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers.


Two law enforcement officers, Sheriff Jay Printz of Montana and Sheriff Richard Mack of Arizona, challenged the constitutionality of a key provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that Congress had no power to require the states to enforce a federal regulatory program absent a particularized constitutional authorization. Scalia argued that the Constitution established a system of dual sovereignty, and that the states, as an essential attribute of their retained sovereignty, are “independent and autonomous within their proper sphere of authority.” In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the commerce clause authorized Congress to regulate interstate commerce in handguns and that nothing in the Tenth Amendment prohibits Congress from delegating enforcement to the states. Although the Printz decision had many implications for federalism, it did not have much direct impact on the Brady bill. More than half the states had laws requiring background checks consistent with the federal statute, and the federal government was scheduled to conduct its own background checks on gun purchasers in late 1998.