By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left in place gun control laws in New York and Connecticut that ban assault weapons like the one used in last week's massacre at an Orlando nightclub, rejecting a challenge brought by gun rights advocates.
The court's action underlined its reluctance to insert itself into the simmering national debate on gun control. The justices have not made a major gun rights ruling since 2010.
The justices declined to hear an appeal of an October ruling by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld laws prohibiting semiautomatic weapons and large capacity magazines in the two northeastern states.
The laws in New York and Connecticut, among the strictest in the nation, were enacted after a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle killed 20 young children and six educators in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The challengers had asserted that the laws violated the U.S. Constitution's protection of the right to bear arms. The court denied the appeal with no comment or recorded vote.
The gunman in the June 12 attack at an Orlando gay night club that killed 49 people, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, used a semiautomatic rifle that would have been banned in New York and Connecticut.
In total, seven states and the District of Columbia ban semi-automatic rifles. A national law barring assault weapons expired in 2004, and congressional Republicans and some Democrats, backed by the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobby, beat back efforts to restore it.
The United States has among the most permissive gun policies in the world. Because the U.S. Congress has been a graveyard for gun control legislation, some states and localities have enacted their own measures.
The U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, but there is a longstanding legal debate over its scope.
The Supreme Court issued important rulings in gun cases in 2008 and 2010 but has not taken up a major firearms case since.
In December, the court declined to hear a challenge to a Illinois town's assault weapons ban. But the justices in March threw out a Massachusetts court ruling that stun guns are not covered by the Second Amendment and sent the case back to the state's top court for further proceedings.
In the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, the court held for the first time that the Second Amendment guaranteed an individual's right to bear arms, but the ruling applied only to firearms kept in the home for self-defense. That ruling did not involve a state law and applied only to federal regulations. Two years later, in the case McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court held that the Heller ruling covered individual gun rights in states.
The court lost one of its strongest pro-gun rights members in February when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died.
The expired federal assault gun ban had barred the manufacture and sale of semi-automatic guns with military-style features as well as magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
The New York and Connecticut laws were challenged by pro-gun groups including the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen and the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association as well as individual gun owners. The appeals court consolidated the two cases and upheld the law.
The Connecticut challengers appealed to the Supreme Court while the New York ones did not. However, an individual gun owner, Douglas Kampfer, who had a parallel legal challenge to the New York law that also lost at the appeals court level asked the Supreme Court to hear his case.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)