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Gun law in sights of U.S. Supreme Court

  • Story Highlights
  • Supreme Court to consider if Washington D.C. handgun ban violates individual rights
  • Its ruling could be widespread and reignite gun control debate in election year
  • Right to keep and bear arms is in U.S. Constitution
  • Arguments have raged for decades over the extent of the right
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court is tackling one of the thorniest issues in U.S. life -- gun laws and the extent gun ownership can be restricted.

Justices have been asked to decide whether Washington, D.C.'s sweeping ban on handgun ownership violates the Constitutional right to "keep and bear arms."

The court's decision could cause a widespread ripple effect across the states -- where restrictions on gun control vary widely -- and sets the stage for a renewed debate over the effects of gun violence, just in time for the 2008 elections.

Several D.C. residents challenged the handgun law, some saying they wanted to do something about being constant victims of crime.

Thirty-one states along with groups like the powerful National Rifle Association -- a gun rights lobby group -- support the gun owners. A handful of states and cities such as Maryland, Massachusetts, Chicago, and San Francisco support Washington.

At the center of the case are 27 words in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "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."

And the question that has polarized, judges, politicians and citizens is: Does that mean an individual has the right to bear arms, or does it mean the individual has the right to belong to an armed militia.

"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."

A federal appeals court in March ruled D.C.'s 31-year-old handgun ban to be unconstitutional, prompting D.C. leaders to urge the Supreme Court to intervene. A ruling is expected in late June.

Lawyers for D.C. wrote: "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."

D.C. reported 143 gun-related murders last year. In 1976, when the handgun ban was enacted, the district's medical examiner said 135 homicides were firearm-related.

Lawyers for both sides tried to strike a moderate tone before the court, arguing that there was an individual right to own a weapon, but that governments could impose reasonable gun-control legislation.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked lawyers for both sides: "What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?"

And Justice Stephen Breyer asked: "Is it unreasonable for a city with that high crime rate to say no handguns here?"

Alan Gura, arguing against the ban said the city "simply doesn't trust the people to protect themselves in their homes."

But Walter Dellinger, a lawyer for the District of Columbia, said the handgun ban "is one that's carefully balanced and (includes) considerations of gun ownership and public safety."

The right to bear arms versus the need to control gun ownership is one that resonates through the country.

Shelly Parker lives in the U.S. capital and 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.

Elilta "Lily" Habtu thinks that is how it should be. She knows about gun violence firsthand, suffering head and arm injuries in the Virginia Tech massacre where a student killed 32 people last year. Video Watch women debate gun control law »

"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."

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.

Both sides have privately expressed concern over how the justices will decide the issue, because the legal, political and social implications could be sweeping in scope.

Only Chicago and the District of Columbia among major U.S. cities have such sweeping firearm bans. The high court has been generally supportive in recent years letting states and cities craft gun-control laws, including upholding a California ban on assault rifles

But each state has its own gun laws and they could be forced into line with the Supreme Court ruling.

An NRA convention in September attracted seven Republican presidential candidates.

President Bush in January signed the first major gun control legislation in 14 years, which strengthens background checks on gun buyers.

Vice President Dick Cheney joined bipartisan majorities of both houses of Congress in signing a legal brief that argues the D.C. ban on handguns violates the Second Amendment.

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A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey of Americans in December showed 65 percent believe the Constitution guarantees each person the right to own a gun, while 31 percent said no.

More than 100 people stood in line outside the court Tuesday for a chance at one of the few seats to see the Supreme Court arguments in person. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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