High court leaves intact ban on machine guns Broad view of '86 law allowed to stand

January 15, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave its implied blessing yesterday to Congress' power to ban private individuals from having guns -- starting with machine guns.

In a brief order, the court left intact a lower court ruling giving the broadest possible interpretation to a 1986 law against the private ownership of machine guns.

Congress, according to the lower court, had intended that law to wipe out the private possession of machine guns unless the owner had the weapon before the day that law went into effect: May 19, 1986.

A Georgia gun owner, taking the case on to the Supreme Court, had argued that Congress did not mean its law to reach that far. And, if the law did seek to do that, the Georgian argued, it was unconstitutional because the Second Amendment guarantee of a people's right to "keep and bear arms" forbids Congress to impose a flat ban on the private possession of firearms.

J. D. Farmer Jr. of Smyrna, Ga., bought a machine gun after the federal law had gone into effect, and he applied to the Treasury for a permit to keep it. The Treasury turned him down, saying the 1986 law gave it no choice.

By declining to hear his appeal yesterday, the Supreme Court did not expressly endorse the lower court decision, but its action meant that the issue was not worth the justices' time.

In a ruling 52 years ago, the Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment does not guarantee private individuals a right to keep guns of their choice. Since then, the National Rifle Association and individual gun owners have gone to court repeatedly to try to get that decision relaxed.

Mr. Farmer's case, Farmer vs. Higgins (No. 90-600), was the latest such effort to reach the highest court, and to fail there.

In another order, the court refused to review the first and only case in which clergy and church workers have been convicted of a crime for providing secret sanctuary in this country for aliens brought in from Central America.

A Methodist minister, two Roman Catholic priests and a nun, along with four church workers, all involved in the "sanctuary movement," were convicted of smuggling illegal aliens into Arizona from Mexico and providing shelter for them after those hTC aliens fled Central America.

All eight people were given probation, with no jail sentence or fine. The case was DeAguilar vs. U.S. (No. 89-6214).

In another religion case, the court turned aside an appeal from a Conneaut, Ohio, fundamentalist Baptist church that claimed it is unconstitutional for a state to require a church -- contrary to its beliefs -- to pay a tax to support benefits for its workers if they get hurt on the job (South Ridge Baptist vs. Ohio, No. 90-773).

The Supreme Court did agree to rule later this year on three other significant test cases:

* An appeal by a Fair Lawn, N.J., couple arguing that it is unconstitutional for Congress to allow the federal government to impose a temporary ban on "designer drugs." (Touby vs. U.S., No. 90-6282).

* An appeal by the combined state-and-federal agency that manages Washington's two airports, National and Dulles. That agency, which is engaged in a major expansion of National Airport, has been stymied by a lower court ruling saying that the way Congress set up the agency is unconstitutional (Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority vs. Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise, No. 90-906).

* An appeal by the city and county of San Francisco and by individual voters there, seeking to revive a California law -- struck down by a lower federal court -- that forbids political parties to endorse or oppose any candidates running for state judgeships or other state offices elected on non-partisan ballots (Renne vs. Geary, No. 90-769).

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