WASHINGTON -- In a significant decision that limits the powers of Congress, the Supreme Court has voted to overturn a federal law barring anyone from carrying a gun near a school.
Congress exceeded its authority over interstate commerce when it enacted the law, declared the court's five most conservative members: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In most communities, yesterday's ruling won't have any immediate impact. More than 40 states -- including Maryland -- already have outlawed the possession of firearms in or near school grounds. None of those state laws were affected by the high court ruling.
But in a broader sense, the decision was a milestone. It signaled a sharp retreat from the court's long-time willingness to endorse the expanding power of Congress to regulate a vast array of activities -- based on its constitutional power to control interstate commerce.
The ruling placed a constitutional cloud over the authority of Congress to legislate in areas traditionally reserved to the states -- especially education, local crime and such family law issues as marriage, divorce, child custody and adoption.
As such, it was a victory for state governments, gun owners and conservatives, who have long sought to halt the growing power of Congress.
"We applaud the Supreme Court's decision," said Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America. "We already have laws that punish thugs for committing crimes with a gun on school grounds. But the congressional act was not only unconstitutional, it could easily punish law-abiding adults who might carry a gun for self-defense."
In contrast, the decision disturbed Clinton administration officials, gun-control advocates, public school leaders, police organizations and others who favored the federal law that was declared unconstitutional.
"We are dismayed that it is no longer illegal to carry a handgun in or near schools in some states," said Bob Chase, vice president of the National Education Association, which ardently supported the law.
For constitutional specialists, the decision was a doctrinal landmark.
William Van Alstyne, a Duke University law professor and author of texts on constitutional law, said it was the first time in nearly 60 years that the Supreme Court had overturned an act of Congress that was based on its power to regulate commerce and had a direct effect on private activity.
The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 made it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a public, private or parochial school.
In defending it as a proper exercise of the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, the Clinton administration argued that gun-related violence in schools hinders learning to such a degree that it damages the American economy and its ability to compete.
But that theory, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, could justify unfettered federal authority to legislate "even in areas such as criminal law enforcement, or education, where states historically have been sovereign.