By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a blow to gun rights activists, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday turned away a challenge to California's 10-day waiting period for firearms purchases that is intended to guard against impulsive violence and suicides.
The court's action underscored its continued reluctance to step into a national debate over gun control roiled by a series of mass shootings including one at a Florida school last week. One of the court's staunchest conservatives, Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from the decision to reject the case and accused his colleagues of showing contempt toward constitutional protections for gun rights.
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The justices also declined to take up a separate gun case involving a National Rifle Association challenge to California's refusal to lower fees on firearms sales and instead use some of the fee money to track down weapons owned illegally.
The gun rights groups and individual gun owners who challenged the waiting period had argued that it violated their right to keep and bear arms under the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment. The challengers did not seek to invalidate the waiting period for everyone, just those who already owned guns and passed a background check.
Thomas scolded his colleagues.
"If a lower court treated another right so cavalierly, I have little doubt this court would intervene," Thomas wrote. "But as evidenced by our continued inaction in this area, the Second Amendment is a disfavored right in this court."
Thomas said he suspected the Supreme Court would readily hear cases involving potentially unconstitutional waiting periods if they involved abortion, racist publications or police traffic stops.
The Supreme Court has not taken up a major firearms case since issuing important gun rulings in 2008 and 2010 that established an individual right to own guns for self-defense.
Gun control advocacy groups cheered Tuesday's snub of the waiting period case.
"Once again the Supreme Court has refused to entertain the gun lobby's extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment," said Eric Tirschwell, litigation director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded by billionaire businessman and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "The courts are continuing to recognize that states have the authority to pass reasonable public safety laws to protect their citizens from gun violence."
The states of California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Illinois, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and New Jersey as well as Washington, D.C., have waiting periods that vary in duration and type of firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The United States has among the world's most lenient gun laws. With the U.S. Congress deeply divided over gun control, it has fallen to states and localities to impose firearms restrictions in recent years. Democratic-governed California has some of the broadest firearms measures of any state.
Mass shootings including one in which a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland, Florida high school on Feb. 14 have added to the long-simmering U.S. debate over the availability of firearms.
Lead plaintiff Jeff Silvester, the Calguns Foundation and its executive director Brandon Combs, and the Second Amendment Foundation in 2011 challenged the 10-day waiting period between the purchase of a firearm and its actual delivery to the buyer.
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in an interview he was disappointed with the decision. "The court should take these cases and give lower courts guidance because at the moment lower courts are all over the map on gun rights issues," Gottlieb said.
The waiting period gives a gun buyer inclined to use it impulsively a "cooling off" period, which has been shown in studies to reduce handgun suicides and homicides, the state said in legal papers. The waiting period also gives officials time to run background checks and ensure that weapons being sold are not stolen or being purchased for someone prohibited from gun ownership, it added.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California's law in 2016, reversing a federal trial court that had ruled it unconstitutional.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)