The US Supreme Court Tuesday agreed for the first time in 70 years to review the right to own guns and consider whether Washington can ban private handguns.
The handgun ban in the US capital of Washington was granted review, said court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg, in what will be a rare review of the US constitution's second amendment.
Arguments are expected in February or April with a ruling at the end of June, just before the November 2008 presidential election.
The city, trying to stem a wave of violence in its poorer neighborhoods, lodged the case with the nine Supreme Court judges seeking to maintain its three-decade ban on individuals owning handguns.
Powerful gun lobby
Washington, which is also home to the president and the government, has interpreted the amendment to mean that there is a collective right to bear arms for those who are part of a police force or a security force.
Since 1976 it has therefore banned residents from carrying handguns, but they are allowed to keep a rifle or hunting gun in their homes, providing it is locked away and not loaded.
For millions of Americans though, 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.”
Weapon of choice
In 2003, Washington resident Dick Heller, who lives in one of the city's tougher districts, 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.”
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 the amendment to remain the remit of federal laws and left all the states in the union free to draw up their own gun laws.
Then in 1939, the court upheld a law requiring that arms transported from state to state should be registered, but all states have formulated their own restrictions, which vary wildly.