The Supreme Court Monday refused to recognize a constitutional right to own machine guns. Instead, the court let stand what the National Rifle Association called "the first ban on firearms possession by law-abiding citizens in American history."

The justices, without comment, left intact a 1986 federal appeals court ruling upholding Congress' prohibition of individuals possessing or transferring machine guns.NRA lawyers, representing a Smyrna, Ga., gun collector, had contended the appeals court wrongly interpreted the 1986 federal law. And they argued that such a flat ban violates the Second Amendment right "to keep and bear arms."

Bush administration lawyers urged the justices to reject the appeal, calling the constitutional arguments "plainly without merit."

Monday's action is not the equivalent of a decision on the Second Amendment's scope. The nation's highest court has not explored that scope since 1939 when it upheld federal prohibitions on the interstate transportation of unregistered firearms.

The dispute began when J.D. Farmer Jr. of Smyrna, Ga., applied to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in November 1986 for a license to make and register a machine gun.

He sued after his application was denied.

Justice Department lawyers defended the law. "Congress' decision flatly to prohibit the private possession of this particular type of weapon is surely reasonable," they said.

Farmer's appeal was supported in a "friend-of-the-court" brief submitted by Arizona.

The machine-gun ban was supported in a brief submitted by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence and major police groups such as the National Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Association of Police Organizations.

Other decisions

In other action, the court:

- Said it will decide the constitutionality of a federal law that gives the attorney general broad power to classify drugs as illegal substances.

- Left intact the 1986 criminal convictions of eight sanctuary movement members who helped Central American aliens smuggled into this country.

- Agreed to decide whether states may ban political parties from taking sides in non-partisan elections of judges and local government officials.

- Refused to lift limits on anti-abortion demonstrations at a Dayton, Ohio, abortion clinic and a ban on protests at the homes of its staff and patients.

- Agreed to decide whether communities may regulate the use of pesticides.