Not long after the Brady Bill was signed into law, rumors began to reach the White House that it would be challenged in Federal Court. On February 26th, 1994, Ron Klain, Associate Counsel to President Clinton, sent a memo to the Attorney General, Janet Reno, detailing the argument behind one such claim. In this case, local law enforcement officials in Montana claimed that the Brady Bill’s requirement to “undertake a reasonable effort” to procure background checks was a violation of the Tenth Amendment and infringed on state sovereignty.

Another case emerged in Arizona when Graham County Sheriff Mack made a similar claim. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took up the case and ruled in favor of Sheriff Mack, claiming that the Brady Bill was unconstitutional. Alternatively, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Montana, found the Brady Bill’s provisions constitutional. With two circuit courts disagreeing on the Brady Bill’s constitutionality, the stage was set for the case to move to the United States Supreme Court.

Read Ron Klain’s full memo to Attorney General Janet Reno regarding a rumored court challenge to the Brady Bill. 


When the case was filed with the Supreme Court in 1996, the argument of the petitioner, Montana Sheriff Jay Printz, challenged the provision of the Brady Bill that required Chief Law Enforcement Officers (CLEO’s) to perform background checks on gun purchases before a sale was allowed to be finalized. Sheriff Printz argued that since he was not a federal employee, he should not be “pressed into federal service.”  To support his claim, Printz cited the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which holds that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States.”

On the other side of the aisle, a bipartisan group of 11 United States Senators who had supported the passage of the Brady Bill argued in its defense on two fronts: First, they held that the requirement for law enforcement officers to support the Brady Bill’s background checks was constitutionally sound. Second, they argued that since this responsibility constituted such a minor portion of the overall law, and Congress would have enacted the remainder of the law without the provision in question, the Supreme Court should not strike down the entire law if Printz won the case.

Read the complete Brief of Amici Curiae, or pleadings of the Senators who defended the Brady Bill’s constitutionality.


The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Printz v. United States on December 3rd, 1996. Six months later, on June 27th, 1997, the Supreme Court released its 5-4 decision ruling in favor of Printz but retaining the remainder of the Brady Bill’s provisions. The majority opinion, written by Justice Scalia, stated, “The Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program” but that this provision “was severable from the remainder of the act.”

Explore Justice Scalia’s full bench opinion on Printz v. United States. (pg. 12).

On the same day that the Supreme Court announced its decision, Janet Reno published a memo to law enforcement officials nationwide asking that they voluntarily continue to carry out the background checks prescribed in the Brady Bill. While the federal government could no longer mandate these activities, Attorney General Janet Reno urged local officials to “keep doing whatever we can to keep guns from criminals.”

Click above to read Janet Reno’s full memo to local law enforcement officials. (pg. 28). 

President Clinton, a longtime supporter of the Brady Bill, addressed the Supreme Court’s decision as he held a signing ceremony for the Drug Free Communities Bill in the Roosevelt Room. There, President Clinton spoke to the Brady Bill’s success over the last few years and said that nobody could “seriously question that it has made a major contribution to increasing the safety of the American people.”  President Clinton also expressed confidence that an instant background check system, which would negate law enforcement’s role in the background check process, would be up and running by November of 1998, securing a loophole in the Brady Bill’s enforcement.

Read President Clinton’s full remarks at the signing of the Drug Free Communities Bill (pg. 2-6). 


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