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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

High Court Limits Gun Control Law

WASHINGTON -- In a bitter defeat for U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court on Friday struck down an important part of the historic Brady gun-control law requiring that local sheriffs conduct background checks on prospective handgun buyers.


The high court by a 5-4 vote ruled that Congress exceeded its power by imposing the requirement under the 1993 law that triggered a political battle and strong opposition from the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby.


The law, the first successful effort by Congress to regulate firearms in 25 years, was named after former White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.


Clinton had defended the law's constitutionality and strongly supported it as a way of reducing handgun murders nationwide.


The justices struck down a key provision requiring local checks by sheriffs for any record of crimes, mental illness, drug use or other disqualifying problems during a five-day waiting period before the gun sale can be completed.


The ruling appeared most important because it underscored the recent trend by the court's conservative majority to drastically curtail the power of Congress over the states and local governments.


In terms of impact on the law, one court member who agreed with the ruling, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, pointedly said the decision "does not spell the end of the objectives" of the gun control measure.


The ruling drew an impassioned dissent from the court's liberal members. Justice John Paul Stevens said Congress reacted to "an epidemic of gun violence" and its action "surely warrants more respect than it is accorded in today's unprecedented decision."


Clinton will ask local officials to make the checks voluntarily and also will look at possible new legislation, a White House spokesman said.


"The president continues to believe strongly that if you do not get a criminal handgun check you should not get a gun," spokesman Barry Toiv said. "We feel that the law itself and pursuing this issue has resulted in thousands of criminals not getting handguns and we will continue to pursue that policy."


Justice Antonin Scalia said for the conservative court majority that the interim provision "commanding" state and local law officers to do the checks was unconstitutional.


He said in the 37-page opinion that Congress cannot force the states to enforce a federal regulatory program.


The impact from the ruling may be limited. O'Connor noted the mandatory local checks were designed only as an interim measure until a national system takes effect in late 1998. She said state and local sheriffs still may voluntarily take part in the program.


According to the Justice Department, there are an estimated 1,300 handgun murders nationwide each year.


Taking the unusual step of reading his dissent at length from the bench, Stevens said the law compared to measures requiring local police officers to report the identity of missing children to the Justice Department.


"If Congress believes that such a statute will benefit the people of the nation and serve the interests of cooperative federalism better than an enlarged federal bureaucracy, we should respect both its policy judgment and its appraisal of its constitutional power," he said.


A CNN-USA Today poll released Friday and taken this week showed that 84 percent of Americans favored the Brady law while only 14 percent opposed it.