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Supreme Court hears arguments on gun ownership

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  • Supreme Court considers whether D.C. handgun ban violates individual rights
  • The nation's capital does not allow its residents to possess handguns
  • Arguments center on whether gun ownership an individual or collective right
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From Bill Mears
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Tuesday took up gun control, hearing arguments concerning a District of Columbia ban on handguns more than two centuries after the Second Amendment gave Americans the right to "keep and bear arms."

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.

Alan Gura, arguing against the ban on Tuesday before the court 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 there should be a "a reasonable standard" to allow cities to pass gun-control legislation. Listen to highlights from each side's argument »

More than 100 people stood in line outside the court for a chance at one of the few seats to hear the arguments in person.

Jason McCrory and his friends were the first in line, having arrived Sunday.

He said he supports "the right of people to keep and bear arms... to protect themselves against the dangers they are presented with."

But Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, said before the hearing that the government had the right to limit gun ownership. Video Watch how life experiences are shaping the arguments »

"There should be reasonable control for access to guns and particularly handguns," he said. "Even if [the Supreme Court finds] that people have the right to bear arms, governments have a right to reasonable controls on firearms -- where and under what circumstances people have a right to have them."

The issue has polarized judges, politicians and the public for decades: do the Second Amendment's 27 words bestow gun ownership as an individual right, or a collective one -- aimed at the civic responsibilities of state militias -- and therefore subject perhaps 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 lawyers for the city.

A federal appeals court in March had ruled the handgun ban to be unconstitutional.

The city's 31-year-old law has prevented most private citizens from owning and keeping handguns in their homes.

Among major U.S. cities, only Chicago, Illinois, and the District of Columbia have such sweeping firearm bans. Courts have generally upheld other cities' restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns.

The District of Columbia 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.

The March ruling that overturned the ban was the first time a federal appeals court had found a gun law unconstitutional on Second Amendment grounds.

That provision 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."

The Supreme Court has steered clear of settling whether the right is individual or collective, and it last examined the issue in 1939 without fully delving into the broader constitutional questions. The issue has remained essentially unresolved since the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1791.

Several District of Columbia citizens first challenged the handgun law, some saying they wanted to do something about being constant victims of crime.

Recent polling finds gun control, remains an important political issue with voters. 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.

The conservative high court majority has been generally supportive in recent years, letting states and cities craft gun-control laws. Video Watch both sides make their cases outside the court »

Similar weapon control laws could now be in jeopardy, and local and state jurisdictions such as Maryland, Massachusetts, Chicago, and San Francisco, California, filed briefs supporting the District.

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, since the legal and political implications could be sweeping in scope.

It is unclear whether the Supreme Court's ruling will be broad in scope and apply to nearly all state and local firearm restrictions.

In all, some 64 different briefs were filed, from more than 80 groups and individuals. Among those supporting the gun rights plaintiffs were the NRA, Disabled Veterans for Self-Defense, and the transgender group Pink Pistols.


Groups supporting the city include the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The case is District of Columbia v. Heller (07-290). 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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