BELLEVUE, WASH. -- A lobbying group for gun owners is asking the Vatican to declare a 19th century Italian priest the patron saint of handgun owners despite rejection of the idea by the saint's religious order.

John M. Snyder, chief lobbyist and director of publications for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, based his petition on an alleged incident in which St. Gabriel Possenti, who died in 1862 at the age of 24, allegedly rescued a village from marauding soldiers by brandishing a pair of pistols.

"He was sort of a holy John Wayne," Snyder said Tuesday. "His story would really make a good movie."

Snyder sent a request in May on behalf of the Bellevue-based gun lobbyists to the Sacred Congregation on the Causes of Saints in the Vatican to have St. Possenti designated the patron saint of handgunners.

However, the Passionist Fathers, the order to which Possenti belonged, has already rejected the attempt to associate the saint with handguns, saying that Possenti had no special skill in the use of firearms and that the incident in the village "was without foundation."

Snyder, a former seminarian, said he had not heard from the Vatican. But he was critical of the response from the Passionist order.

"Part of the problem in the modern church are these pacific religious types who don't want to admit any kind of strength at all," Snyder said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "That may be why the order said what it did."

According to some historians, Possenti, a seminarian in the early 19th century, reportedly seized a gun from a pillaging soldier who was carrying off a woman, then used the pistol to force a second soldier to relinquish his weapon.

When others sneered and closed in, he drew a bead on a lizard in the road and killed it with a single shot.

Thus intimidated, according to the legend, the soldiers left, and the young Possenti was paraded around the village on the shoulders of its citizens.

Possenti, who was canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV because of his spirit of charity and penance, was reportedly an avid hunter and expert marksman before he decided to study for the priesthood.