The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms, ending a ban on owning handguns in the capital city in its first ruling on gun rights in 70 years.
The court's 5-4 landmark decision -- on whether the right to keep and bear arms is fundamentally an individual or collective right -- said the city's law violated the second amendment of the US constitution which the justices said guaranteed citizens the right to keep guns at home for self-defense.
"There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the court's decision.
He added that while the court took seriously the problem of handgun violence: "The constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns.
"The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table. These include the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home."
It was a victory for gun rights advocates and could have a far reaching impact on gun control legislation across the country. Opponents may now challenge other laws in cities such as New York that restrict the ownership of handguns in the name of public safety.
The high court had never before issued a precise ruling on the interpretation of the second amendment to the 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."
Washington, home to the White House and the US administration, has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.
Private possession of handguns is strictly banned here, and any rifles or shotguns must be kept unloaded in homes or under a trigger lock.
City government officials argued the ban, instituted in 1976, was necessary to stem rising gun violence, and that the second amendment protects gun rights for people associated with militias, not individuals.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case, District of Columbia vs. Heller, first argued in 2003 that the DC gun ban violated second amendment rights.
Alan Gura, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, questioned whether the city's gun ban curtailed crime, saying they have "accomplished nothing except to prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms."
The court, however, said the right to own guns was "not unlimited" and that its ruling did not cast doubt on laws prohibiting convicted federal criminals or mentally ill patients from keeping guns.
Bans on concealed weapons or on carrying firearms in sensitive places such as schools or government buildings remained legal, it said.
The case, originally brought by a federal building guard who carries a handgun on duty and wanted to keep it in his home for self-defense, attracted national attention and a flurry of "friend of the court" amicus briefs filed on both sides.
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, well-financed gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
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.