Circumscribed right

January 15, 1991

The gun lobby suffered a well-deserved defeat yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to recognize a constitutional right to own machine guns. The justices let stand without comment a lower court ruling that said Congress had prohibited individuals from possessing or transferring such weapons in 1986.

The high court's action was the only reasonable response. The gun lobby has persistently claimed an absolute constitutional right to possess firearms. Yet in 200 years, the court has never interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that individuals have an unlimited right to "keep and bear arms." And for good reason; affirming an unconditional right would open the door to all kinds of loony litigants claiming constitutional protection for possessing tanks, ballistic missiles -- even nuclear warheads.

The court has injected an element of rationality into the debate and clearly implies that Congress has the authority to adopt tough restrictions on firearms ownership. The only thing lacking now is the political will among lawmakers to exercise that power.

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