WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the District of Columbia's sweeping ban on handgun ownership violates the Constitution's fundamental right to "keep and bear arms."
Washington, D.C., leaders asked the high court to intervene in the gun case.
The justices accepted the case for review, with oral arguments likely next February or March. A ruling could come by late June, smack in the middle of the 2008 presidential election campaign.
At issue is one that has polarized judges and politicians for decades: Do the Second Amendment's 27 words bestow gun ownership as an individual right, or do they bestow a collective one -- aimed at the civic responsibilities of state militias -- making it therefore subject to strict government regulation.
City leaders had urged the high court to intervene, saying refusal to do so could prove dire.
"The District of Columbia -- a densely populated urban locality where the violence caused by handguns is well documented -- will be unable to enforce a law that its elected officials have sensibly concluded saves lives," wrote attorneys for the city.
Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and other officials held a public rally in September, with the message that more handguns will only mean more serious crime.
"I see the results of gun violence every day," said Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier. "The weakening of the district's gun law will inevitably lead to an increase in injury, and worse, death."
A federal appeals court in March ruled the handgun ban to be unconstitutional as well as a provision that rifles and shotguns -- which are legal to own in the city -- be kept in the home unloaded and fitted with trigger locks or disassembled. The rifle regulations are not at issue before the Supreme Court.
The city's 31-year-old law has prevented most private citizens from owning and keeping handguns in their homes.
Only Chicago, Illinois, and Washington among major U.S. cities have such sweeping handgun bans. Courts have generally upheld bans in other cities of semiautomatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns.
Several Washingtonians first challenged the law, some saying they wanted to do something about being constant victims of crime.
"I want for myself the right to protect my home and my family in the event of a violent attack," plaintiff George Lyon said in March after winning a lower court victory. "The District of Columbia is not what I call the safest jurisdiction in the world."
The city reported 137 gun-related murders last year.
The Supreme Court's conservative majority has been supportive of local jurisdictions crafting gun-control laws. But the high court in 2003 refused to accept an appeal challenging California's ban on assault rifles.
Similar weapon control laws in other cities also could be in jeopardy, and Maryland, Massachusetts, Chicago and San Francisco, California, have filed briefs supporting Washington.
The National Rifle Association and other groups support the gun owners, but both sides have privately expressed concern over how the justices will decide the issue, because the legal and political implications could be sweeping in scope.
Recent polling finds gun control remains an important political issue with voters. An NRA convention in September attracted seven Republican presidential candidates.
In June, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation to strengthen the national system that checks backgrounds of gun buyers. It followed the April shooting at Virginia Tech in which a gunman killed 32 students and faculty on campus.
Legal experts said that given the unanswered constitutional questions, it was little surprise the justices decided to tackle the case.
"This issue is so monumental and so sweeping, and such a change from prior rulings on gun control that it was basically on a freight train to the U.S. Supreme Court for the justices to finally decide," said Thomas Goldstein, an appellate lawyer and founder of the popular scotusblog.com Web site.
A separate petition by five city residents asked to be included in the case. A federal court earlier had rejected that appeal on standing grounds. E-mail to a friend