WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A majority of Congress on Friday urged the Supreme Court to side with gun owners in an upcoming case testing whether an individual has a guaranteed right to bear arms.
Lawmakers want the Supreme Court to end a Washington, D.C., ordinance that prevents legal handgun ownership.
The bipartisan group of senators and representatives signed on to a legal brief supporting a challenge by District of Columbia residents to own a handgun for protection in their home.
The justices hold oral arguments March 18, and could provide a landmark ruling on a legal question that has largely gone answered since the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791.
In their "amicus" brief, 55 senators and 250 representatives urged the high court to strike down the district's ordinance that prevents citizens from legally owning a handgun.
"We're talking about law-abiding folks -- like you and me -- who cannot exercise their rights simply because of the city they live in," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. "Our founders didn't intend for the laws to be applied to some folks and not to others. They didn't mean for the laws to apply at some times and not others."
Tester made his remarks in a conservative think-tank speech, along with a co-sponsor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
Sixty-eight Democrats in the House and nine in the Senate were joined a larger Republican bloc filing the brief.
The case is the most closely watched this Supreme Court term, and legal and political experts say it has already ignited a fierce social debate this election year.
The 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 is it a collective one -- aimed at the civic responsibilities of state militias -- and therefore subject to strict government regulation?
The amendment states, "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."
District leaders had urged the high court to intervene, saying refusal to do so could prove dire.
A group of 18 Democratic members of the House last month filed their own amicus brief, supporting the district. Led by Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, the lawmakers said the proper venue for deciding gun-control measures is in Congress, not the courts.
"Whether the regulation or prohibition of a particular weapon implicates the preservation or efficiency of a 'well-regulated militia,' over which Congress has responsibility, is precisely the kind of question best left to the political branches to resolve," they said.
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 district -- be kept in the home unloaded, and fitted with trigger locks or disassembled. The rifle regulations are not currently at issue before the Supreme Court.
The district's 31-year-old law has prevented most private citizens from owning and keeping handguns in their homes.
Chicago and and Washington are the only major U.S. cities that have such sweeping handgun bans. Courts have generally upheld bans of semiautomatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns in other cities.
Several district residents first challenged the law, some saying they wanted to do something about being constant victims of crime.
Key plaintiff Shelly Parker told CNN recently she wanted the right to have a handgun for peace of mind, and act as a responsible gun owner.
"In the event that someone does get in my home, I would have no defense, except maybe throw my paper towels at them," she said "So, I would just like the comfort of knowing at least that I could have a gun if I feel I need one."
Groups that filed supporting briefs include the National Rifle Association and Disabled Veterans for Self-Defense.
Groups supporting the district include the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. E-mail to a friend