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The US Supreme Court Tuesday agreed for the first time in 70 years to review the right to own guns, as it considers whether the city of Washington can ban private handguns, a court spokeswoman told AFP.
The high court agreed to review an appeal by the city insisting its three-decade ban on handguns is constitutional, said court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg.
Arguments are expected between February and April with a ruling at the end of June, just a few months before the November 2008 presidential election.
The US capital, plagued by chronic violence in many of its poorest neighborhoods, took the case to the nine Supreme Court judges seeking to maintain the prohibition on individuals owning handguns.
Washington, which is also home to the president and the government, has interpreted the constitution’s disputed second amendment, the right to bear arms, to mean that there is a collective right for those who are part of a police force or security force to bear arms.
Since 1976 it has banned residents from carrying handguns, but they are allowed to keep a rifle or hunting gun in their homes, providing it is under lock and not loaded. The ban remains in place until the US high court issues a ruling in the case.
For millions of Americans however — and especially the powerful gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association — the second amendment guarantees the right of every American citizen to own any gun, with few limits.
The amendment declares that: “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.”
In 2003, Washington resident Dick Heller, who lives in one of the city’s tougher neighborhoods, lodged a suit against the local authorities saying his constitutional right to bear arms was being violated. Although his case was initially rejected, he won on appeal to a federal appeals court in March.
Washington officials in turn then lodged a case with the Supreme Court in September insisting that it must rule on the extent of access to handguns, the weapon of choice in two-thirds of robberies and assaults.
Handguns are used in half of the 15,000 murders across the country every year, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
“Faced with the evidence that handguns pose a particularly serious threat to public safety, the council chose to ban handguns because it concluded that less restrictive regulations would be ineffective,” the city said in its petition to the court.
“Whatever right the second amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die.”
Opponents of gun restrictions welcomed the court’s decision to hear the case, hoping the more conservative panel of justices that now sit on the bench will strike down the gun ban.
“That’s good news for all Americans who would like to be able to defend themselves where they live and sleep,” the right-leaning Cato Institute said in a statement after the court agreed to review the case.
“And it’s especially good news for residents of Washington DC, which has been the murder capital of the nation despite an outright ban on all functional firearms since 1976,” said the group, which backs Heller.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the country’s largest non-partisan group leading the fight to prevent gun violence, continued its campaign for gun control.
“We are hopeful that the Court will reverse the lower court ruling (on Dick Heller’s lawsuit), which we thought was deeply flawed, and that the Supreme Court will reaffirm that communities are free to enact the strong gun laws that they think will protect the safety of their citizens,” Brady Center vice president Dennis Henigan told AFP.
To date the Supreme Court has rarely considered the issue of the right to bear arms.
In the 19th century, it determined that the founding fathers meant to give all states in the union the freedom to draw up their own gun laws.
Then in 1939, the court upheld a law requiring that arms transported from state to state be registered.
But all states have formulated their own restrictions, which vary wildly.