The US Supreme Court will Tuesday begin weighing an individual's right to bear arms against a community's right to restrict gun ownership for public safety, an emotional issue that has long divided Americans.
The conservative-leaning court's first decision on gun ownership in almost 70 years is expected to have a far reaching impact on US gun control laws, experts say.
AdvertisementSince 1939, the high court has not ruled on the interpretation of the second amendment of the US constitution, 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."
At the center of the case is the nation's capital city, Washington DC, which has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country: private ownership of handguns is banned, and rifles or shotguns must be kept in homes disassembled or under a trigger lock.
Washington government officials say the ban, instituted in 1976, is necessary to keep street violence and murder rates down, and that the second amendment protects gun rights for people associated with militias, not individuals.
"I'm confident in our case, and our continued ability to protect residents from gun violence," said Mayor Adrian Fenty upon filing his legal team's brief earlier this month.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, first argued in 2003 that the DC gun ban violates its citizens' second amendment rights.
Alan Gura, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, questioned the anti-crime impact of the city's laws, saying they have "accomplished nothing except to prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms."
Interest in the case, originally brought by a federal building guard who carries a handgun on duty and wanted to keep it at home for self-defense, has been steadily building.
There has been a rash of "friend of the court" amicus briefs filed on both sides. These allow interested parties who are not directly related to the case to argue their positions.
Supporters of gun rights include groups as varied as Pink Pistols and Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, 126 Women State Legislatures, and the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
"More anti-gay hate crimes occur in the home than in any other location," the Pink Pistols said in their brief, which says guns should be allowed in homes for self-defense purposes.
On the other side, law enforcement groups, the American Bar Association, US mayors and coalitions against domestic violence argue that easy access to handguns causes murder rates to rise.
"Women are killed by intimate partners -- husbands, lovers, ex-husbands or ex-lovers -- more often than by any other category of killer," said a brief by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, adding that such killings were the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 15-45.
The US government itself is divided on the issue with the Justice Department taking the side of law enforcement, and Vice President Dick Cheney signing onto a brief filed by some lawmakers that calls for the DC ban to be overturned.
The Republican candidate for the November presidential election, Arizona Senator John McCain, also signed the brief, while Democratic party hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have not.
Gun rights advocates believe that momentum is in their favor.
"The overwhelming weight of the evidence and opinion is that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is an individual right," said Randy Barnett, legal expert at Georgetown University.
If the conservative-leaning high court rules that the right laid out in the constitution is an individual one, the American Bar Association predicts a far-reaching effect on the ability of governments to restrict gun carrying among citizens.
"Separating the right to bear arms from the maintenance of a well-regulated militia would cast doubt on the authority of state and local governments to regulate firearms," the ABA said.
The Supreme Court last took up the issue in 1939, but its ruling on a case involving alleged bank robbers and registration of certain firearms did not directly address the question of the individual versus collective right to bear arms.
A decision in the current case is not expected until June.