President criticizes high court's action

April 30, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton said yesterday that he was terribly disappointed by Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling that overturned the federal ban on gun possession within 1,000 feet of schools.

The president ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to recommend ways to get around the decision, perhaps by linking federal money for education aid to states' enforcement of such bans.

"This Supreme Court decision could condemn more of our children to going to schools where there are guns," Mr. Clinton said in his weekly radio address, in an unusually pointed presidential comment on a court ruling.

"And our job is to help our children learn everything they need to get ahead in safety, not to send them to school and put them in harm's way.

"I am determined to keep guns out of our schools. That's what the American people want, and it's the right thing to do."

The plans represent his latest effort to argue for a federal role on a contentious issue such as gun control by casting himself as a defender of children's health and safety.

He has made a similar case in opposing efforts by the Republican Congress to curtail the federal school lunch program or relax environmental regulations.

"We all know that guns simply don't belong in school, so members of Congress of both parties passed the law," Mr. Clinton said in the speech, which he taped Friday for broadcast yesterday.

"Unfortunately the Supreme Court struck down the specific law. They said the federal government couldn't regulate that activity, because it didn't have enough to do with interstate commerce.

"I am directing the attorney general to come back to me within a week with what action I can take to keep guns away from schools. I want the action to be constitutional, but I am determined to keep guns away from schools.

"For example, Congress could encourage states to ban guns from school zones by linking federal funds to enactment of school-zone gun bans. At least we could tie the money we have for safe schools to such a ban."

More than 40 states, including Maryland, have laws banning guns in or near schools, so Mr. Clinton's order has more symbolic import than practical effect.

But it was not lost on the White House that the ruling was the first since 1936 in which the court has overturned a federal law on the ground that it exceeded the congressional power over commerce.

In 1936, at the height of the New Deal, the high court struck down minimum-wage and maximum-hour requirements for the coal industry.

In its 5-4 ruling, the court held that Congress acted beyond its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce five years ago when it made possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school a federal crime.

The ruling, while overturning no precedents, nevertheless cast doubt on Congress' ability to regulate a range of activities it has recently defined as federal crimes, including carjackings and drive-by shootings.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was a criminal statute that had nothing to do with "commerce" in the traditional sense.

The opinion left open such options as Mr. Clinton's suggestion to tie federal aid to the adoption of state gun bans.

Attaching such strings to federal money in exchange for state action is a traditional approach in a host of fields like highway aid and education.

In fact, as Mr. Clinton noted yesterday, Congress last year passed a somewhat similar measure, the Gun Free Schools Act. It requires school districts around the country to expel for at least a year any student caught taking a gun to school, and Mr. Clinton authorized the Education Department to withhold federal aid from districts that do not comply.

In reserving comment on the court decision until yesterday, Mr. Clinton assured himself wide coverage in large-circulation Sunday newspapers and broadcasts.

But White House aides said he had not made the decision to speak out against the ruling lightly. With relatively rare exceptions, presidents give the Supreme Court a wide berth when it interprets the law.

"It comes down to the fact that kids are different," said the senior presidential adviser, George Stephanopoulos. "The president believes we are measured by how we treat our children, and it's simply common sense to keep guns out of schools. The importance of signaling a strong stand against violence and the prospect of kids' killing kids with guns -- they shouldn't have outweighed the traditional reluctance to comment."

In his address, Mr. Clinton cited statistics on school violence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to buttress his case. He said the CDC has recorded 105 violent school-related deaths in the past two years.

In 1990, Mr. Clinton said, a study found that one in 24 students carried guns in a 30-day period, and by 1993, it was one in 12.

"The number of high school students carrying a gun doubled in only three years," Mr. Clinton said. "This is certainly a national crisis, and we must have a national effort to fight it.

"We need a seamless web of safety that keeps guns out of the hands of our children and out of our schools."

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