The Supreme Court today refused to recognize a constitutional right to own machine guns. Instead, the court let stand what the National Rifle Assn. called "the first ban on firearms possession by law-abiding citizens in American history."
The justices, without comment, left intact a federal appeals court ruling that said Congress in 1986 prohibited individuals from possessing or transferring machine guns.
NRA lawyers, representing a Smyrna, Ga., gun collector, had contended that the appeals court wrongly interpreted the 1986 federal law. And they argued that such a flat ban violates the Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms."
Administration lawyers urged the justices to reject the appeal, calling the constitutional arguments "plainly without merit."
Today's action is not the equivalent of a decision on the Second Amendment's scope. The nation's highest court has not explored that scope since 1939, when it upheld federal prohibitions on the interstate transportation of unregistered firearms.
The dispute over machine guns began when J. D. Farmer Jr. of Smyrna, Ga., applied to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in November, 1986, for a license to make and register a machine gun. He sued after his application was denied.
The bureau turned down Farmer because, it said, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 prohibits the "making of new machine guns for possession by private persons."
U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester in Atlanta ruled that the 1986 law did not impose a general ban on making and possessing machine guns.
Forrester ordered that Farmer's application be reviewed by federal regulators, but an appeals court reversed his ruling.
The appeals court said the 1986 law flatly bans the possession of machine guns not lawfully possessed before the law was enacted.
In Farmer's appeal, lawyers for the NRA's Firearms Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund said, "The decision below upholds the first ban on firearms possession by law-abiding citizens in American history."