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But in last week's ruling, the court repudiated this interpretation for the first time in more than a half-century. Led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, five Justices agreed with Lopez's lawyer that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 is unconstitutional, rejecting the government's argument that guns in schools contribute to violence, which in turn hampers students' learning and hurts the economy by making students less productive. The court was deeply divided, however. Justice Stephen Breyer, who called the majority ruling "extraordinary," took the unusual position of reading from the bench a portion of his dissent, which argued that "gun-related violence in and around schools is a commercial, as well as a human problem."
It is tempting to interpret the court's impulse to roll back the authority of the Federal Government as a leap aboard the new conservative bandwagon of devolution. The move, however, has been brewing in the court for years, led by conservative Justices. Because the ruling's impact will depend on the court's inclinations, it may be too soon to say whether the Lopez ruling represents, in the words of Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, a "constitutional moment" -- an epochal period when the court realigns itself with a deep shift in prevailing political philosophy-or rather, as Ackerman's Yale colleague Michael Graetz quips, a "constitutional minute."
It is equally difficult to predict the case's immediate effects. In addition to inviting challenges to 60 years of legislation based on the Commerce Clause, the decision may prompt a new round of challenges to more recent bills like the assault-weapons ban and the Republican push to put federal limits on state-court damage awards. In his weekly radio address last Saturday, Clinton said he had ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to report within a week on how to make the school gun ban constitutional. In the meantime, Alfonso Lopez is heading to a place where firearms are not a problem. He is joining the Marines. -Reported by Nina Burleigh and J.F.O. McAllister/Washington and Andrea Sachs/New York