WASHINGTON -- A deeply divided Supreme Court nullified key parts of the Brady gun-control law yesterday, blocking Congress' move to require state and local officials in all states to help prevent criminals from buying handguns.
Congress has no power to force states to carry out federal law, the court ruled 5-4 in striking down the Brady Act's demand that local police conduct a background check on anyone who wants to buy a handgun. Such checks could reveal whether potential buyers are ineligible under federal law to buy handguns because they have criminal records, are drug users or illegal aliens or have mental defects.
The court's ruling, the last issued before the justices begin a summer recess, stirred a vigorous constitutional tug of war within the court over the structure of government. As recently as Wednesday, close to midnight, the justices reportedly were still fighting over the scope of the decision that emerged yesterday morning.
It took the court a half-hour to announce the ruling, an unusually long recital, as Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens read forcefully and at length from their opposing User.Event 7 was not expected here! opinions. One of the dissenting justices, David H. Souter, confessed, in one of the six opinions issued in the case, that the dispute was a closer call "than I had anticipated."
The decision did leave intact the Brady Act's five-day waiting period before handguns may be sold by dealers. In addition, states and cities remain free to conduct background checks on their own or under state or local laws. Maryland and 26 other states have such laws, and police in some states without them have said they will voluntarily continue the checks.
Maryland has required a seven-day waiting period and background checks of handgun purchasers since 1967. Last year, the General Assembly further tightened the restrictions, limiting purchases to one handgun a month, including any purchases made from private individuals as well as from gun dealers.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that those restrictions had prevented the distribution of an estimated 14,500 handguns in the state.
"We may have an ability to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but we're not an island," Curran said. "Someone from another state can easily get a gun and come here. It would be much better to have a national law that gives everyone the same protections."
The parts of the federal law that were struck down yesterday imposed background-checking duties on local police until the federal government sets up a national instant-check system, expected by November 1998.
Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday that, since the Brady law took effect, more than 250,000 felons, fugitives and others ineligible to buy guns have been barred from doing so. Any failure to keep up the background checks, she said, "will seriously undermine all our efforts" to reduce violent crime.
Yesterday's court decision continued a trend of the past five years to bolster states' rights against federal intrusion. The majority declared that states could be enlisted in national law-enforcement efforts only with their consent or with offers of financial subsidies but not by compulsion.
"The power of the federal government would be augmented immeasurably if it were able to impress into its service -- at no cost to itself -- the police officers of the 50 states," Scalia wrote for the majority.
Scalia's majority included Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor. Dissenting were Justices Souter, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stevens.
The ruling curtailed Congress' power to make states partners in federal programs, but it did not appear to erode Congress' authority to regulate gun sales.
Sarah Brady, chairwoman of Handgun Control Inc., told reporters outside the Supreme Court building, "In no sense did the court impose general limits on the power of Congress to enact strong gun control laws."
The Brady Act is named for her husband, James, who was seriously wounded in 1981 when he was press secretary to President Ronald Reagan and was shot by John Hinckley.
Thomas wrote yesterday that an argument could be made that Congress has no authority to control gun sales within the borders of a single state. Such regulation, Thomas said, might violate the Second Amendment, "the right to keep and bear arms."
The ruling left undisturbed Congress' power to legislate for the nation, requiring state and local officials to obey those laws, so long as the states were not "conscripted" into enforcing the laws, as the majority said the states would have to be under the law's required background checks.
At the White House, President Clinton stressed that the ruling did not forbid criminal background checks. He directed Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin to contact state and local police "to make sure they know that the background checks can and should be done by local police on a voluntary basis."
The president said, "My goal is clear: No criminal background check, no handgun anywhere in America. No state should become a safe haven for criminals who want to buy handguns."
Defenders of the background checks and waiting periods predicted that most jurisdictions would continue to follow those restrictions, with or without the Brady Act's requirements.
On the other side, opponents of the Brady Act praised the court. Stephen Halbrook, a lawyer for the two sheriffs who successfully challenged the requirements imposed by the law, said outside the court, "This court put its foot down" to stop what he called "a draft of the sheriffs of this country" into federal duty.
Pub Date: 6/28/97