Printz v. United States

Printz v. United States

Argued December 3, 1996
Decided June 27, 1997
Full case name Jay Printz, Sheriff/Coroner, Ravalli County, Montana, Petitioner 95-1478 v. United States; Richard Mack, Petitioner 95-1503 v. United States

521 U.S. 898 (more)

117 S. Ct. 2365; 138 L. Ed. 2d 914; 1997 U.S. LEXIS 4044; 97 Cal. Daily Op. Service 5096; 97 Daily Journal DAR 8213; 11 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 224
Prior history On writs of cert. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act's interim provision commanding the "chief law enforcement officer" (CLEO) of each local jurisdiction to conduct background checks, §922(s)(2), is unconstitutional.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Scalia, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor, Kennedy, Thomas
Concurrence O'Connor
Concurrence Thomas
Dissent Stevens, joined by Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent Souter
Dissent Breyer, joined by Stevens
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. X; Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Pub. L. 103-159, 107 Stat. 1536

Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997), was a United States Supreme Court ruling that established the unconstitutionality of certain interim provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.


The Gun Control Act of 1968

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA), Pub. L 90-618 and subsequent amendments established a detailed Federal scheme governing the distribution of firearms. The GCA prohibited firearms ownership by certain broad categories of individuals thought to pose a threat to public safety: convicted felons, convicted misdemeanor domestic violence or stalking offenders, persons with an outstanding felony warrant, fugitives from justice, unlawful aliens, persons with court-mandated protective orders issued against them, persons who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, adjudicated mentally ill by a court, and others.

Persons disqualified from firearms ownership for mental health reasons can apply to have this disability removed. States that do not maintain an application process to allow persons disqualified for mental health reasons to obtain relief from firearms prohibition face Justice Assistance Grant penalties. Section 105 of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA), cited as Pub. L. 110-180, § 105, provides for restoration of firearm ownership rights in mental health cases. Under NIAA it is up to each U.S. state to come up with its own application process; thus the procedure to regain one's rights vary from state-to-state.

The Brady Act

In 1993, Congress amended the 1968 Gun Control Act by enacting the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Pub. L. 103-159. This 1993 Act required the Attorney General to establish an electronic or phone-based background check to prevent firearms sales to persons already prohibited from owning firearms. This check, entitled the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) went into effect as required on November 30, 1998.

Interim provisions

The Act also immediately put in place certain interim provisions until that system became operative. Under the interim provisions, a firearms dealer who proposes to transfer a handgun must receive from the transferee a statement (the Brady Form), containing the name, address and date of the proposed transferee along with a sworn statement that the transferee is not among any of the classes of prohibited purchasers, verify the identity of the transferee by examining an identification document, and provide the "chief law enforcement officer" (CLEO) of the transferee's residence with notice of the contents (and a copy) of the Brady Form.

When a CLEO receives the required notice of a proposed transfer, they must "make a reasonable effort to ascertain within 5 business days whether receipt or possession would be in violation of the law, including research in whatever State and local recordkeeping systems are available and in a national system designated by the Attorney General."

The plaintiffs

Petitioners Jay Printz and Richard Mack, the Chief Law Enforcement Officers for Ravalli County, Montana, and Graham County, Arizona, represented by Stephen Halbrook and David T. Hardy respectively, filed separate actions challenging the constitutionality of the Brady Act's interim provisions. They objected to the use of congressional action to compel state officers to execute Federal law.

Lower court decisions

In each case, the District Court held that the provision requiring CLEOs to perform background checks was unconstitutional, but concluded that provision was severable from the remainder of the Act, effectively leaving a voluntary background check system in place. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding none of the Brady Act's interim provisions to be unconstitutional.

Majority decision

The majority of five justices ruled that the interim provisions of the Brady Bill are unconstitutional. In his opinion, Justice Scalia states that, although there is no constitutional text precisely responding to the challenge, an answer can be found “in historical understanding and practice, the structure of the Constitution, and in the jurisprudence of this Court.”

Historical understanding and practice

Scalia concedes that legislation compelling judges to carry out federal legislation has been passed but considers that the nature of the courts, which occupy a vertical hierarchy that requires consideration of prior decisions by federal or state courts, exempts this from applying in this case. Furthermore, contrasting the frequency of legislation applying to judicial courts to the absence of legislation applying to state executives shows that this power was not granted.

The structure of the Constitution

Scalia refers to the “dual sovereignty” established by the U.S. Constitution that federalism is built upon. His opinion states that the Framers designed the Constitution to allow Federal regulation of international and interstate matters, not internal matters reserved to the State Legislatures. The majority arrives at the conclusion that allowing the Federal government to draft the police officers of the 50 states into its service would increase its powers far beyond what the Constitution intends.

The Court also offered an alternative basis for striking down the provision: it violated the constitutional separation of powers by robbing the president of his power to execute the laws; that is, it contradicted the "unitary executive theory". The Court explained

We have thus far discussed the effect that federal control of state officers would have upon the first element of the "double security" alluded to by Madison: the division of power between State and Federal Governments. It would also have an effect upon the second element: the separation and equilibration of powers between the three branches of the Federal Government itself. The Constitution does not leave to speculation who is to administer the laws enacted by Congress; the President, it says, "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed," Art. II, §3, personally and through officers whom he appoints (save for such inferior officers as Congress may authorize to be appointed by the "Courts of Law" or by "the Heads of Departments" who with other presidential appointees), Art. II, §2. The Brady Act effectively transfers this responsibility to thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control (if indeed meaningful Presidential control is possible without the power to appoint and remove). The insistence of the Framers upon unity in the Federal Executiveto insure both vigor and accountabilityis well known. See The Federalist No. 70 (A. Hamilton); 2 Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution 495 (M. Jensen ed. 1976) (statement of James Wilson); see also Calabresi & Prakash, The President's Power to Execute the Laws, 104 Yale L. J. 541 (1994). That unity would be shattered, and the power of the President would be subject to reduction, if Congress could act as effectively without the President as with him, by simply requiring state officers to execute its laws.

Finally, the majority cited previous rulings by the Supreme Court in similar situations. In New York v. United States, the Court invalidated a provision in a bill that "coerced" states to comply with a federal radioactive waste-disposal regime, holding "[t]he Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program". New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144, 188 (1992).

The dissent

In his dissent, Justice Stevens suggests the Commerce clause of the Constitution, giving the Federal government the right to regulate handgun sales, can be coupled with the Necessary and Proper Clause, giving Congress the power to pass whatever laws are necessary and proper to carry out its previously enumerated power. Federal direction of state officials in this manner is analogous to ordering the mass inoculation of children to forestall an epidemic, or directing state officials to respond to a terrorist threat. He is very concerned with the ability of the federal government to respond to a national emergency and does not believe that "there is anything in the 10th amendment 'in historical understanding and practice, in the structure of the Constitution, or in the jurisprudence of this Court,' that forbids the enlistment of state officers to make that response effective." Moreover, the text of the Constitution does not support the Majority's apparent proposition that "a local police officer can ignore a command contained in a statute enacted by Congress pursuant to an express delegation of power enumerated in Article I."

Effects of the decision

The immediate effects of the ruling on the Brady Bill were negligible. The vast majority of local and state law enforcement officials supported the interim provisions and were happy to comply with the background checks. The issue ended with the completion of the federal background check database. However, Printz v. United States was an important ruling in support of States' Rights and limits on Federal power.

The political poles have reversed from Printz, especially after the attack on the World Trade Center; where Printz protected conservative local authorities from liberal federal power, it also now protects liberal local authorities from conservative federal power. Professor Ann Althouse has suggested, retained in its strong form, the anti-commandeering doctrine announced in Printz "can work as a safeguard for the rights of the people"; "the federal government might go too far in prosecuting the war on terrorism," Printz provides a circuit-breaker that might allow local and state officials to refuse to enforce regulations curbing individual rights. Moreover, "[b]y denying the means of commandeering to the federal government, the courts have created an incentive [for Congress] to adopt policies that inspire [rather than demand] compliance, thus preserving a beneficial structural safeguard for individual rights," and "state and local government autonomy can exert pressure on the federal government to moderate its efforts and take care not to offend constitutional rights."[1] All of this was finally settled with the 2d Amendment being made "fully applicable" to the States with the Incorporation of the 14th Amendment, see, McDonald vs. City of Chicago (2010), upholding the Heller case of 2008, see Heller vs. District of Colombia. The Right to "...keep and bear arms," is now a fundamental and individual right and self-defense is the "central component" of the 2d Amendment. Americans must be allowed to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes (such as to do so within the home). The term "such as" is descriptive of one of the "lawful purposes" and is not a definitive restriction. The States can only "add-to" individual and fundamental rights but can never diminish them, see, California vs. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 1014, 103 SCt 3446, 77 LEd 2d 1171 (1983).

See also


  1. Althouse, Ann. The Vigor of the Anti-Commandeering Doctrine in Times of Terror, 69 Brook. L. Rev. 1231 (2004).

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