STUNG by a series of legislative defeats on the federal, state, and local level, gun proponents are shifting the battle over gun control to the courts. New Jersey became the latest battleground last month when gun groups filed suit against the state's assault-weapons ban in the US District Court in Trenton.
The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order against certain provisions of the two-month-old law. But the broader aim of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies is to prove that the New Jersey law violates the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.
``This is just the first step in what will be a series of legal skirmishes,'' says Richard Manning, a lobbyist for the NRA.
The NRA and local gun proponents have filed a similar suit against California, the only other state with an assault-weapon ban. The US District Court in Fresno, Calif., heard oral arguments on May 19, but remains undecided.
And cities across the nation have enacted their own assault-weapon bans over the last year and a half, with the gun lobby right on their heels. Law suits target bans in Denver, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton.
``We're determined to fight these laws all the way up to the Supreme Court if necessary,'' says Mr. Manning. ``They are unconstitutional,'' he adds.
The United States Supreme Court has never ruled on a state or local law banning gun ownership.
Gun-control supporters, fresh from victories in statehouses and city halls, say they welcome the courtroom challenge.
``Our position is that the law is constitutional, that it does not violate the Second Amendment, and that there is no individual right to a firearm of choice,'' says Peter Harvey, special assistant to New Jersey Attorney General Robert J. DelTufo.
The debate over a constitutional right to bear arms centers on the intent of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Second Amendment: ``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.''
``There is nothing in the amendment's language even remotely suggesting a constitutional right to keep and bear arms for hunting, self-protection, target shooting or other individual pursuits unrelated to the operation of state militias,'' says Dennis Henigan, director of the Legal Action Project, an arm of the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
But lawyer Stephen Halbrook, the lead plaintiff lawyer in the California suit, disagrees.
``In talking about the militia the framers were just giving a reason why people should have the right to bear and keep arms,'' argues Mr. Halbrook. ``The framers of the Constitution were trying to be serious. They didn't want to say people should have the right to bear arms so they could go duck hunting. But if people wanted to go duck hunting, the framers believed they should have the right to.''
Much attention has been focused on the New Jersey law because of its strength.
The federal law, backed by President Bush last year, bans imports of certain types of semiautomatic weapons but imposed no restrictions on domestic models. And California's assault-weapon law allows people who bought their semiautomatic weapons before June 1, 1989, to keep them if the arms are registered.
New Jersey bans the sale and restricts ownership of a wide range of semiautomatic rifles with a fixed magazine of more than 15 rounds, and certain semiautomatic shotguns.
Semiautomatic weapons can fire only one round with each pull of the trigger, but reload immediately and automatically.
The law allows gun collectors who owned semiautomatic weapons before May 1, 1990, to keep their arms, but they must render the arms inoperable. And target shooters, who also must have owned their guns before May 1, may keep their arms if they register them for $75 every two years.
``The new law stinks,'' says Vince Lombardi, the general manager of the Hudson County Pistol Range in Hoboken, N.J.
Mr. Lombardi says the biggest seller at the firing range's gun shop these days is bumper stickers saying ``Impeach Florio.'' The reference is to Gov. James Florio (D) of New Jersey, who spearheaded the drive to ban assault weapons in the state.
``Gun people don't like the governor,'' Lombardi says. ``Nobody needs an Uzi,'' Governor Florio maintains. ``Nobody needs an AK-47. I'm very pleased that we have put the public interest ahead of special interests.''
The New Jersey ban will not go into full effect until May 31, 1991. But Manning says the ban already makes possessing magazines that hold 15 or more bullets illegal. ``It makes gun owners instant criminals,'' he says.
Manning has asked that the temporary restraining order be granted to stop the magazine prohibition.
Semiautomatic assault weapons have gained much public attention over the last two years as law enforcement authorities and gun-control advocates say they have become the weapon of choice for drug dealers.
Reports of gun-toting drug dealers, along with the the 1988 slaying of five schoolchildren in Stockton, Calif., by a man using a AK-47 assault weapon, have helped prompt the various state and federal legislative action.
Hard statistics are elusive, but, according to Mr. Henigan, a close reading of crime statistics shows a definite upward trend in the use of assault weapons.
But Ira Marlowe, treasurer of the Coalition for New Jersey Sportsmen, one of the plaintiffs in the New Jersey lawsuit, says the criminal use of semiautomatic weapons is exaggerated.
``Last year in New Jersey there was not one murder ... with a semiautomatic assault weapon,'' he says.
Bob Biden, owner of Bob's Little Gun Shop in Glassboro, N.J., says some of his customers are so upset over the new law that they are moving out of New Jersey.
``Four of my customers have already made plans to leave,'' Mr. Biden says. ``And there's going to be a lot more.''
But Henigan says New Jersey is just a little ahead of what is becoming a national trend.
``People are saying enough is enough,'' he says. ``They've had it with these assault weapons.'' Assault-Weapons Bans Federal: July 1989 administration-backed ban on imported semiautomatic weapons. July 1990 Senate crime bill includes three-year ban. New Jersey: May 1990 ban on semiautomatic weapons with 15-round fixed magazines, and some semiautomatic shotguns. Owners of these weapons prior to May 1, 1990, may keep them, if rendered inoperable. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has sued the state, arguing the ban violates the 2nd Amendment. California: Banned semiautomatic weapons last year, allowing owners prior to June 1, 1989, to keep their weapons, if registered. An NRA-led lawsuit is pending in Fresno's US District Court.