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Court decision on gun control is personal for 2 women

  • Story Highlights
  • The nation's capital does not allow its residents to possess handguns
  • Supreme Court to consider if Washington's handgun ban violates individual rights
  • Shelly Parker, a single woman in D.C., says she has no defense against intruders
  • Virginia Tech survivor worries guns are too easy to get
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From Bill Mears
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Shelly Parker wants to know why she cannot keep a handgun in her house. As a single woman she has been threatened by neighborhood drug dealers in a city where violent crime rates are on the rise.

"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. But Parker lives in the nation's capital, which does not allow its residents to possess handguns.

Elilta "Lily" Habtu thinks that is how it should be. She knows about gun violence firsthand, surviving bullets to the head and arm fired by the Virginia Tech University shooter nearly a year ago.

"There has to be tighter gun control; we can't let another Virginia Tech to happen," she said. "And we're just not doing it, we're sitting around, we're doing nothing. We let the opportunity arise for more massacres."

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will consider whether Washington's sweeping ban on handgun ownership violates an individual's constitutional right to "keep and bear arms," setting the stage for a potentially monumental legal and social battle, just in time for the 2008 elections.

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, perhaps, to strict government regulation?

"What the Supreme Court says will really set the terms of the debate on gun control for years to come," said Orin Kerr, an expert on criminal procedure at George Washington Law School. "So everyone's waiting to find out what the justices will do."

The Supreme Court has generally steered clear of settling the individual-versus-collective argument. It last examined the issue in 1939 without fully delving into the broader constitutional questions.

Similar weapon-control laws could be in jeopardy, and jurisdictions such as the states of Maryland and Massachusetts and the cities of Chicago, Illinois, and San Francisco, California, filed briefs supporting the District of Columbia.

Thirty-one states along with groups like the National Rifle Association 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.

After a federal appeals court in March ruled the handgun ban to be unconstitutional, city leaders urged the high court to intervene, saying refusal to do so could prove dire.

Several Washington citizens, including Parker, challenged the law, some saying they wanted to do something about being constant victims of crime. Video Watch women debate gun control law »

She said her community activism earned her the anger of local drug dealers, who vandalized her property and made repeated verbal threats and taunts. After her car window was broken, she called police, who offered some friendly advice.

"I said to the police, 'I have an alarm, I have bars, I have a dog, what more am I supposed to do?" recalled Parker. "The police turned to me and said, 'Get a gun.' "

Habtu, a 23-year-old Eritrean-born woman, was in a Norris Hall classroom in April when fellow Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho burst in and began shooting. He eventually killed 32 people and wounded dozens more before taking his own life. It was the nation's deadliest school shooting.

"That was one of the worst days of my life. I was injured, I had one gunshot wound in my jaw, and the bullet is still lodged one millimeter away from my brain stem," she said.

Since graduating, Habtu has devoted her time to speaking in favor of gun control, including tightening laws on Internet gun sales, and preventing loopholes that allow mentally ill people like Cho to buy weapons.

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"No one here is trying to fight against your right to have a gun," she said in a soft voice. "What we want is for dangerous people not to get access to one, and today it is just too easy. We cannot keep sacrificing innocent people because you have a fear that you're not going to have your right to own a gun."

A ruling is expected in late June. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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