WASHINGTON (AP) _ Closing a historic term with high drama, the Supreme Court threw out a key part of the Brady gun-control law Friday, saying the federal government cannot make local police decide whether people are fit to buy handguns.

Although the 5-4 decision marked another victory for states' rights from the conservative court, it still left intact a five-day waiting period before someone can buy a handgun.

State and local officials can still perform background checks _ already required in 27 states _ until a planned national instant-check system takes effect in late 1998.

President Clinton ordered Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to make that clear to state and local police, and to meet with them to consider further options.

``My goal is clear: no criminal background check, no handgun anywhere in America,'' said Clinton, who made the law a centerpiece of his tough-on-crime platform last year.

Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, which strongly opposed the law, said, ``We feel vindicated by this decision.''

The justices ended their 1996-97 term in dramatic fashion, issuing major decisions earlier this week on confinement of sexual predators, doctor-assisted suicide, smut on the Internet and religious freedom.

And on Friday they set the stage for a pivotal ruling on affirmative action during the next term, agreeing to decide whether a New Jersey school board's effort to preserve racial diversity among its teachers amounted to discrimination.

The Clinton administration had asked the court to steer clear of the case, in which a white teacher was laid off to protect an equally qualified black teacher.

The Brady law is named after former press secretary James Brady, who was seriously wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. It was passed in 1993 after bitter congressional battles.

Brady's wife, Sarah, said she was ``somewhat disappointed'' the background-check provision was struck down but was ``very delighted that the rest of the law remains intact.''

Writing for the court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the federal government could not direct states to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program because ``such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty.''

Scalia's opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Stevens took the unusual step of reading for 18 minutes from his strongly worded dissent. He compared the background check requirement to requiring local police officers to report the identity of missing children to the federal government.

``If Congress believes that such a statute will benefit the people of the nation ... we should respect both its policy judgment and its appraisal of its constitutional power,'' Stevens said.

In recent years, the court has acted several times to enhance states' power, often at the expense of the federal government. Northwestern University law professor Martin Redish said Friday's ruling was a substantial limit on federal power that may put some other federal programs at risk.

The Justice Department estimated in February that police background checks since 1994 have blocked more than 186,000 illegal over-the-counter gun sales.

The Brady law required local officials to make a ``reasonable effort'' to find out if a prospective gun buyer had a felony record, a history of mental illness or drug use, or some other problem that would make the sale illegal.

It was challenged in federal court by county sheriffs from Montana and Arizona who said conducting the background checks would take time away from other law-enforcement duties.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the requirement, saying it was only a minor burden. But the Supreme Court said the lower court was wrong.

``This is a victory for the American people _ not only firearms owners but persons who don't choose to own firearms,'' said Sheriff Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Mont., one of the sheriffs who challenged the law.

However, Michael Chitwood, chief of police for Portland, Maine, said, ``I along with hundreds of other police chiefs across the country will continue to do these background checks.''