Americans enjoy no constitutional right to own handguns, retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell said Sunday.

"It is not easy to understand why the (Constitution's) Second Amendment, or the notion of liberty, should be viewed as creating a right to own and carry a weapon that contributes so directly to the shocking number of murders in our country," Powell said in a speech prepared for delivery to the American Bar Association convention in Toronto.Powell, whose speech dealt primarily with procedural delays in capital punishment cases, blamed the soaring U.S. murder rate in part on the availability of handguns.

"Much scholarly debate has centered on the extent to which the Second Amendment applies to private ownership of arms, or is restricted to the need for a well-regulated militia," Powell said.

Powell said that even if the amendment applies to privately owned guns, it does not apply "with respect to handguns - as opposed to sporting rifles and shotguns."

The amendment states, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the amendment's scope.

Powell cited FBI statistics that more than 20,000 murders were committed in the United States last year, and that about 60 percent of them were committed with firearms.

"During the Vietnam War, some 58,021 Americans were killed," he said. "During that same period in the United States, approximately 122,000 Americans were murdered. Of those, more than 70,000 were killed by firearms."

About drawn-out legal appeals in death penalty cases, Powell said, "Perhaps the time has come for the Congress, as it is free to do, to take another thoughtful look at a system that no other democracy deems necessary."

Noting that the time between a convicted murderer's crime and his execution exceeds nine years in Georgia and Florida and averages nearly eight years in Texas, Powell said, "However this delay may be characterized, it hardly inspires confidence or respect by the public for our criminal justice system."

Powell, who left the nation's highest court last summer, recently was named by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to head a U.S. Judicial Conference committee reviewing the capital punishment appeals process.