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  • Supreme Court Report

  •   Guns and Paperwork

    Tuesday, December 3, 1996; Page A14

    It's usually the Second Amendment that is invoked by gun control opponents. But this morning in the Supreme Court, in a case challenging the Brady law, the focus will be shifted to the 10th Amendment. That constitutional provision, which has nothing to do with firearms, is general in nature and provides that the powers not specifically given to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states or to the people.

    Although all but ignored by everyone but scholars, the 10th Amendment has been invoked recently by conservative justices to curb what the court found to be overreaching by Washington. In a series of cases, the high court found violations of the amendment in congressional directives to the states in areas as varied as hazardous waste regulation and Indian tribe litigation. And now gun control opponents are using it to attack the Brady law. Their argument is that the federal government cannot impose upon state and local officials the duty to perform background checks on gun purchasers so that those who have criminal records, a history of mental illness or other disqualifying records can be denied a gun.

    The responsibility imposed on local officials is temporary. By 1999, the federal government is to have in place a computer system of its own that can pull out the relevant information. The burden seems to us minimal, though the sheriffs who have brought this challenge say their deputies have better things to do. And when cooperation among state, local and federal law enforcement organizations is not only historically standard practice but absolutely necessary in this large and diverse country, balking at this request for assistance appears to be motivated more by opposition to gun control than concern for states' rights.

    The Brady law was passed after years of debate and over the opposition of what was thought to be the most powerful lobby in Washington. It has been successful in keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of thousands of dangerous individuals. Nevertheless, it is possible that the court will find fault with the division of responsibility for implementing the law that was set out by Congress. If so, the law can be revised so that federal officials can do the paperwork instead of local lawmen. And the development of computer capability can be put on a fast track. But a loss on the government's part would be distracting and demoralizing. We hope the justices affirm the 9th Circuit's reasoning that while the federal government may not coerce the states into legislating or regulating according to Washington's dictates, there is "nothing unusually jarring to our system of federalism in the Brady act's requirement that [sheriffs], during a five-year interim period, 'make a reasonable effort to ascertain' the lawfulness of handgun purchases."

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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