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Printz v. United States (1997)

Last Updated: 2006

In Printz v. United States (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down provisions of the federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act for unconstitutionally intruding on state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Act, better known as “the Brady Bill,” was initially proposed in response to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 by John Hinckley Jr. that left the president’s Press Secretary James S. Brady severely wounded. From 1987 to 1993, the Brady Bill was repeatedly introduced, debated, and defeated in Congress. Nevertheless, public and congressional support for the bill gradually increased during this period, and when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he vowed to support the Brady Bill. During this time period, members of Congress negotiated changes in the Brady Bill. Instead of a simple seven-day waiting period, by 1993 the Brady Bill had become more complex and included a five-day waiting period during which locally designated law enforcement officers (sheriffs, local chiefs of police, etc.) would be required to investigate the backgrounds of all persons wanting to purchase a handgun. In addition, the federal government would be required to develop a national computer system that could be used to conduct “instant checks” on the backgrounds of gun buyers at the point of purchase. The Brady Bill finally passed Congress on November 24, 2003.

Shortly after the Brady Bill was enacted, two local sheriffs—Jay Printz from Ravalli County, Montana, and Richard Mack of Graham County, Arizona—filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Brady Bill provisions that required them to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers. They argued that the federal government could not mandate state and local governments to implement federal policy because the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution reinforces the notion of a limited federal government and guarantees state sovereignty from such mandates.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the issue in Printz v. United States. The Court agreed with Printz and Mack, and invalidated the mandatory background check provisions. Writing for the 5–4 majority in the case, Justice Antonin Scalia concluded, “The federal government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the States’ officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.”

The decision in the Printz case reaffirmed the Court’s 1992 decision, New York v. United States, in which the Court invalidated provisions of a federal statute involving nuclear waste policy for infringing on state sovereignty in violation of the Tenth Amendment. Even more importantly, Printz is now widely regarded as one of the key federalism decisions handed down by the Rehnquist Court since 1992. Beginning with the New York case, the Rehnquist Court set out on a course to increasingly scrutinize and invalidate federal legislation based on constitutional federalism principles that had not been used by the Court since the New Deal in the 1930’s.

In addition to its Tenth Amendment cases, the Court has limited federal power under the Interstate Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 (e.g., United States v. Lopez 1995 and United States v. Morrison 2000); Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment (e.g., City of Bourne v. Flores 1995 and Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents 2000); and the Eleventh Amendment (e.g., Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida 1996 and Board of Trustees v. Garret 2001). In nearly all of these federalism cases, including Printz, the court has been narrowly divided by 5–4 votes. The majority in these cases, which is sometimes referred to as the “Federalism Five,” includes Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, all of whom were appointed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. The Federalism Five argue that there are fixed boundaries between federal powers on the one hand, and state and local powers on the other, and that the Court must be willing to define and enforce those boundaries. The dissenters usually include Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, most of whom have charged the Court with improperly encroaching on legitimate national legislative powers.

These and other cases have sparked considerable and often contentious debates among scholars and commentators over the Court’s proper role in defining the scope of federal powers. In handing down this wave of federalism decisions and resurrecting doctrines long thought to have been buried in a judicial graveyard, the Rehnquist Court has been characterized by some as creating a “federalism revolution,” although others argue that the Court’s decisions in this area are far less than revolutionary.

The impact of Printz and the other federalism decisions is difficult to assess. Certainly, the Court’s interpretations of the Tenth Amendment and other federalism provisions of the Constitution suggest that there are legal limits to federal power, and in so doing the Court appears to have bolstered state and local sovereignty. However, the Brady Bill’s mandatory background checks were scheduled to expire not long after the Court handed down the Printz decision in 1997, due to the sunset clause in the statute. In addition, it is widely believed that Congress could have required the state and local governments to carry out the background checks by conditioning the receipt of federal funds on their willingness to do the checks using Congress’s constitutional “spending power.” Hence, some argue that cases like Printz will in the end have little impact on the scope of federal power.

SEE ALSO: Commerce among the StatesNew York v. United StatesTax and Spending PowerTenth AmendmentUnited States v. Lopez


Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001); City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1995); Neal Devins, “Congress as Culprit: How Lawmakers Spurred on the Court’s Anti-Congress Crusade,” Duke Law Journal 51 (2001): 435–64; Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000); New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992); J. Mitchell Pickerill, Constitutional Deliberation in Congress: The Impact of Judicial Review in a Separated System (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); J. Mitchell Pickerill and Cornell W. Clayton, “The Rehnquist Court and the Political Dynamics of Federalism,” Perspectives on Politics 2 (June 2004): 233–48; Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997); Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996); United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995); United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000); and Keith E. Whittington, “Taking What They Give Us: Explaining the Court’s Federalism Offensive,” Duke Law Journal 51 (2001): 477–520.