WASHINGTON (AFP) — The right of Americans to keep and use guns, an issue that has divided the political landscape for centuries, was taken up by the Supreme Court Tuesday for the first time in nearly 70 years.
Experts say the conservative-leaning court's decision, which is not anticipated until June, could have a far reaching impact on the United States' laws on the use and control of guns.
Lawyers challenged the US capital's restrictions on gun ownership, which aim to clamp down on murders and street violence, saying those laws infringed on the right of citizens to use weapons at home for self-defense.
The nine Supreme Court justices argued during the hearing over whether the right to "keep and bear arms," as described in the constitution, is an individual or a collective right, and whether Washington, DC's regulations on gun-carrying were "reasonable."
"What is reasonable about a total ban on possession?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts, who along with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly interrupted the lawyers with questions about the legitimacy of the ban.
The city of Washington passed its gun ban in 1976. The law requires any rifles or shotguns in the home to be disassembled or kept under trigger lock and prevents private citizens from carrying handguns in most cases.
Scalia implied that the capital's laws -- some of the most stringent in the nation -- all but prevent citizens from using guns for self-defense.
"If you have time, when you hear somebody crawling in your -- your bedroom window, you can run to your gun, unlock it, load it and then fire?" Scalia asked.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, argued the gun ban violates the second amendment, which 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."
"Self-defense is the heart of the second amendment right," said Alan Gura, lead attorney for the plaintiff, Dick Heller, 66, a federal building guard who carries a handgun on duty and wanted to keep it at home for self-protection.
However, defense attorney Walter Dellinger argued that the amendment has a clear "militia relatedness aspect," meaning that "Heller's proposed use of a handgun has no connection of any kind to the preservation or efficiency of a militia and therefore the case is over."
The court has not ruled since 1939 on the interpretation of the second amendment to the US constitution, and even that ruling was unclear and left opposing sides claiming it supported their views.
Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the more liberal justices, brought up crime rates -- 200-300 people killed annually in the capital and 1,500-2,000 people wounded mainly as a result of handgun violence -- that the mayor's office has argued made the ban necessary.
"In light of that, why isn't a ban on handguns, while allowing the use of rifles and muskets, a reasonable or a proportionate response on behalf of the District of Columbia?" Breyer asked.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said after the hearing that "the court is struggling with the argument that perhaps it (Washington's gun ban) goes too far. I think they are having a hard time figuring out how to draw the line."
Interest in the landmark case, originally brought in 2003, has built steadily around the country.
Hundreds of banner-waving pro- and anti-gun advocates gathered outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, and some had even camped out the night before in order to get one of the limited seats inside.
Tara Henigan, 42, a resident of Falls Church, Virginia, stood outside the court wearing a sticker that read: "Guns Don't Die, People Do."
"I'm fascinated how people can think it is an individual right. A 'well-regulated militia' means 'military service,'" she said.
Following the hearing, both sides claimed victory was imminent.
"We are 100 percent focused on winning this case," said Mayor Adrian Fenty, maintaining that "handguns today represent a disproportionate number of crimes," and the ban has "significantly curtailed" criminal activity.
Heller told reporters he was confident in his case.
"It is a basic issue of constitutional rights when the right to self-defense has been violated," he said. "As a security officer I carry a gun to protect government officers, but my life isn't worth protecting at home in their eyes."
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