THE SUPREME Court in the past has found no constitutional bar to legislation requiring the registration of handguns or prohibiting the sale of firearms to convicted felons, the mentally incapacitated and other groups thought to be especially dangerous when armed. But when Congress prohibited future private ownership of machine guns in 1986, the National Rifle Association thought it had a stronger case to bring before the justices. That law, says the NRA, is the first ban in American history on firearms possession by law-abiding citizens, and because it is such a sweeping restriction, it violates the Second Amendment. Yesterday the Supreme Court declined to consider that argument.
It's not easy to get any kind of gun control legislation through Congress -- or through most state legislatures, for that matter -- but private ownership of machine guns was hard to defend. No one uses them for hunting, for target practice or for protecting home and family, and not even the NRA could convince lawmakers that every American has an inalienable right to keep this kind of artillery in the hall closet. So while gun control advocates suffered a number of defeats during the debate on the 1986 law, they were able to get the machine gun prohibition accepted on a voice vote. It is an indication of the self-confidence of the gun lobby that even this concession to good sense and nonviolence was challenged in the courts.
The constitutional argument was made but not accepted in the lower courts. A U.S. District Court judge in Georgia initially emasculated the law by giving its plain meaning a tortured interpretation. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals set him straight. It is that court's ruling -- that Congress indeed meant to prohibit private ownership of these lethal weapons -- that was left undisturbed by the Supreme Court this week. It is gratifying that there were not a sufficient number of justices -- or even one, so far as we know -- who wanted to review the case for constitutional reasons. Congress is on firm ground in moving to regulate the mad proliferation of weapons that is a growing threat to civilized society in this country. Our only complaint isthat legislators continue to underestimate the determination of ordinary citizens and law enforcement officers to bring this madness under control.