Printz v. United States,
521 U.S. 898 (1997)

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No. 95-1478. Argued December 3, 1996-Decided June 27,1997*

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act provisions require the Attorney General to establish a national system for instantly checking prospective handgun purchasers' backgrounds, note following 18 U. S. C. § 922, and command the "chief law enforcement officer" (CLEO) of each local jurisdiction to conduct such checks and perform related tasks on an interim basis until the national system becomes operative, § 922(s). Petitioners, the CLEOs for counties in Montana and Arizona, filed separate actions challenging the interim provisions' constitutionality. In each case, the District Court held that the background-check provision was unconstitutional, but concluded that it was severable from the remainder of the Act, effectively leaving a voluntary background-check system in place. The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding none of the interim provisions unconstitutional.


1. The Brady Act's interim provision commanding CLEOs to conduct background checks, § 922(s)(2), is unconstitutional. Extinguished with it is the duty implicit in the background-check requirement that the CLEO accept completed handgun-applicant statements (Brady Forms) from firearms dealers, §§ 922(s)(I)(A)(i)(III) and (IV). Pp. 904-933.

(a) Because there is no constitutional text speaking to the precise question whether congressional action compelling state officers to execute federal laws is unconstitutional, the answer to the CLEOs' challenge must be sought in historical understanding and practice, in the Constitution's structure, and in this Court's jurisprudence. Pp. 904-905.

(b) Relevant constitutional practice tends to negate the existence of the congressional power asserted here, but is not conclusive. Enactments of the early Congresses seem to contain no evidence of an assumption that the Federal Government may command the States' executive power in the absence of a particularized constitutional authorization. The early enactments establish, at most, that the Constitution

*Together with No. 95-1503, Mack v. United States, also on certiorari to the same court.


was originally understood to permit imposition of an obligation on state judges to enforce federal prescriptions related to matters appropriate for the judicial power. The Government misplaces its reliance on portions of The Federalist suggesting that federal responsibilities could be imposed on state officers. None of these statements necessarily implies-what is the critical point here-that Congress could impose these responsibilities without the States' consent. They appear to rest on the natural assumption that the States would consent, see FERC v. Mississippi, 456 U. S. 742, 796, n. 35 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in judgment and dissenting in part). Finally, there is an absence of executivecommandeering federal statutes in the country's later history, at least until very recent years. Even assuming that newer laws represent an assertion of the congressional power challenged here, they are of such recent vintage that they are not probative of a constitutional tradition. Pp. 905-918.

(c) The Constitution's structure reveals a principle that controls these cases: the system of "dual sovereignty." See, e. g., Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U. S. 452, 457. Although the States surrendered many of their powers to the new Federal Government, they retained a residuary and inviolable sovereignty that is reflected throughout the Constitution's text. See, e. g., Lane County v. Oregon, 7 Wall. 71, 76. The Framers rejected the concept of a central government that would act upon and through the States, and instead designed a system in which the State and Federal Governments would exercise concurrent authority over the people. The Federal Government's power would be augmented immeasurably and impermissibly if it were able to impress into its service-and at no cost to itself-the police officers of the 50 States. Pp. 918-922.

(d) Federal control of state officers would also have an effect upon the separation and equilibration of powers between the three branches of the Federal Government itself. The Brady Act effectively transfers the President's responsibility to administer the laws enacted by Congress, Art. II, §§ 2 and 3, to thousands of CLEOs in the 50 States, who are left to implement the program without meaningful Presidential control. The Federal Executive's unity would be shattered, and the power of the President would be subject to reduction, if Congress could simply require state officers to execute its laws. Pp. 922-923.

(e) Contrary to the contention of JUSTICE STEVENS' dissent, the Brady Act's direction of the actions of state executive officials is not constitutionally valid under Art. I, § 8, as a law "necessary and proper" to the execution of Congress's Commerce Clause power to regulate handgun sales. Where, as here, a law violates the state sovereignty principle, it is not a law "proper for carrying into Execution" delegated

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

The federal government violated the Tenth Amendment when Congress required state and local officials to perform background checks on people buying guns.


This decision arose from an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was a federal law designed to limit the distribution and ownership of firearms. Some of the categories disqualified from owning firearms include convicted felons, fugitives, mentally ill individuals, and non-citizens without legal status in the U.S. Congress amended this law in 1993 with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which mandated background checks to prevent the distribution of firearms to people who were disqualified from owning them.

Until the background check went into effect in 1998, the Brady Act provided for the interim usage of a Brady Form by people seeking to purchase firearms. This would contain the personal information of the intended user as well as an identification document and a sworn statement that the intended user was not disqualified from owning a firearm under the Gun Control Act. Additionally, firearms distributors would need to notify a chief law enforcement officer of the user's residence and provide a copy of the Brady Form. In turn, the officer would have five business days to make a reasonable effort to determine whether the user's possession of a firearm would violate the Gun Control Act by researching in federal, state, and local records.

Two chief law enforcement officers in Montana and Arizona, Jay Printz and Richard Mack, brought a constitutional challenge to these interim provisions on the grounds that they forced state officers to carry out federal law. The lower courts found that they could not be constitutionally required to perform background checks but could perform voluntary checks. The Ninth Circuit reversed and reaffirmed the constitutionality of the mandatory checks.


  • Stephen Halbrook (plaintiffs)
  • David T. Hardy (plaintiffs)



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

Writing for the majority, Scalia placed substantial weight on the dual sovereignty principle that divides authority between the federal government and the states. He argued that this concept was critical to the success of the federalism structure on which the American system of government was founded. According to his historical analysis, the Framers meant to limit federal authority to international and interstate affairs, rather than controlling the operations of state officials like police officers within states. Scalia also pointed out that the interim provisions threatened the separation of powers between Congress and the President, who is intended to have sole control over executing the laws under Article II of the Constitution. While he acknowledged that Congress can require state judges to carry out federal legislation, he found that this pattern need not apply to the state executive branch, which is not tied into its own vertical hierarchy like the court system.

In addition to these textual and structural arguments, Scalia's traditional approach included a reference to the Court's 1992 decision in New York v. U.S., when it struck down a federal law that required states to comply with a federal program for disposing of radioactive waste.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Rather than advocating a different approach to the Constitution, Stevens took issue with Scalia on the textual and structural grounds that formed the basis of the majority's opinion. He argued that nothing in the text of the Constitution suggested that state law enforcement could refuse to comply with federal requirements that were within the scope of the federal government's enumerated powers under Article I of the Constitution. Analyzing whether the interim provisions of the Brady Act lay within those enumerated powers, Stevens found authority for them by combining the Commerce Clause with the Necessary and Proper Clause. While the first provision gave the federal government authority over the distribution of firearms, the second provision allowed Congress to pass laws that are necessary and proper (often interpreted as "appropriate") in executing its enumerated powers. Stevens seemed to feel that the Brady Act's objectives related to national security or at least a nationwide concern for preventing a security emergency, which would situate it within the appropriate powers of Congress.


  • David H. Souter (Author)


  • Stephen G. Breyer (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

Case Commentary

Congress is generally not permitted to commandeer a state's legislative or executive branches of government, if the state does not choose to use them for the federal purpose of its own accord. This applies even if the commandeering affects only ministerial duties that are relatively mechanical and lacking in discretion. The conservative Court may have had ideological reasons for protecting the relatively conservative states from a liberal federal government with this decision, but it is important to note that its principles also serve to protect relatively liberal states from a conservative federal government.

Practically speaking, the decision had little impact on the enforcement of the Brady Act and related federal laws. Most law enforcement officials at the state and local levels were willing to comply with the interim provisions and conduct the background checks. Moreover, the implementation of the federal background check system in 1998 made the issue moot.

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