WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today 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 federal appeals court ruling that said Congress in 1986 prohibited individuals from 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.''

Today'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.

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.

The justices, in an appeal by a New Jersey couple, will study a law aimed at giving the government emergency powers to crack down on what are called designer drugs that can be produced from readily available chemicals in home laboratories.

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

The justices, without comment, refused to review a federal appeals court ruling that the prosecution of eight religious leaders and lay workers of churches in Arizona and Mexico was valid.

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

The court said it will consider reviving a voter-approved ban on party endorsements in such races in California.

- 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.

The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that said a permanent injunction against a ''class'' of unnamed protesters was justified.

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

The court said it will hear an appeal by the rural town of casey, Wis. The appeal was supported by state officials.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in March that local regulation of pesticide use is pre-empted by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1972.

- Turned away an effort by a Lexington, Ky., newspaper to scuttle a libel lawsuit stemming from its Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on recruiting scandals in college athletics.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that forces the Lexington Herald-Leader to defind itself at trial against libel allegations by Reggie Warford, a former University of Pittsburgh assistant basketball coach.

The dispute over machine guns acted on today 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.

The bureau turned down Farmer because, it said, the Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 prohibits the ''making of new machine guns for possession by private persons.''

The 1986 law amended the Gun Control Act of 1968.

U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester in Atlanta ruled that the 1986 law did not impose a general ban on making and possessing machine guns. The law merely banned machine guns if a license could be denied for some other reason, the judge said.

Forrester ordered that Farmer's application be reviewed by federal regulators, but the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his ruling.

The appeals court said the 1986 law flatly bans the possession of machine guns not lawfully possessed before the law was enacted.

The disputed law states that possessing or transferring a machine gun is illegal unless ''by or under the authority of the United States or any department or agency thereof. or a state, or a department, agency or political subdivision thereof.''

That exception, the 11th Circuit court said, applies only to federal, state and local governments - and not to individuals who get government-issued licenses.

In Farmer's appeal, lawyers for the NRA's Firearms Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund said, ''The decision below upholds the first ban on firearms possession by law-abiding citizens in American history.''

Even if Congress intended to impose an absolute ban on new machine guns, the appeal said, such a ban would be unconstitutional.

The appeal said the 11th Circuit court interpreted the 1986 law ''too broadly. It bans possession by all citizens, not just narrow classes such as felons.''

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. In it, state Attorney General Robert Corbin said, ''The absolute prohibition by Congress of a weapon undisputedly used as ordinary military equipment would deprive the citizens of their right to keep and bea such a weapon.''

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.

The case is Farmer vs. Higgins, 90-600.