Paving the way for a Supreme Court showdown over gun control laws, a federal appeals court Friday struck down a District of Columbia law that prevents residents from keeping handguns in their homes for self-defense.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court said the Constitution's Second Amendment protects a person's right to own a gun, striking down a decades-old law that prohibited district residents from owning handguns.
The decision sets the stage for a possible Supreme Court battle next fall over state and federal gun control laws. The court has never ruled on whether the government could ban firearms, and legal experts said the justices could now be hard-pressed to avoid the dispute.
Friday's decision involved provisions in the city's law that banned or regulated guns inside a person's home. Opponents did not argue that they had a right to carry those weapons outside their homes or that all restrictions on gun ownership violated the Constitution.
Instead, the opponents, six district residents, attacked parts of the law that prohibited them from keeping handguns inside their homes for self-defense or required them to store lawfully registered guns, such as shotguns, locked and unloaded in their homes. They argued that the law violated the Constitution's Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms."
The Bush administration has taken a similar position in the past, arguing that the Second Amendment protects a person's right to own guns, but that the government can impose "reasonable restrictions" on gun ownership.
In defending the law, the district had argued that the Constitution protected only the right to "bear arms for service in a militia" and did not protect an individual's right to own a gun. As a result, the government could broadly ban the use of firearms, it argued.
The debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment has divided lower courts, academics and pro- and anti-gun control groups for decades. The Supreme Court has declined repeated requests to step in and resolve the issue. Most federal appeals courts have ruled that the amendment protected only a collective right to bear arms to defend the state. Those courts had upheld laws limiting or banning the possession of guns.
But in recent years, a growing number of academics had argued that the Second Amendment protected the individual's right to bear and keep arms as well. And in 2001, a New Orleans-based federal appeals court became the first to rule that the Constitution protected that individual right. But it said the right was not absolute, and it upheld the constitutionality of a federal law preventing a person under a restraining order from possessing a gun.
That same year, a Denver-based federal appeals court said the amendment did not protect an individual's right to own guns and upheld a man's conviction for possessing a machine gun, in violation of federal law.
The Bush administration argued in Court papers five years ago that the Denver court's reasoning was wrong and that the Second Amendment did, in fact, protect an individual's right to own guns. But it said the government could nonetheless pass laws to "prevent possession by unfit persons or … restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse."
The administration then defended the man's conviction under the federal law banning machine guns. The Supreme Court, again, did not intervene.
The district said it would appeal Friday's decision, and legal observers predicted the justices are now likely to step in. There is a clear split among the lower courts, and the issue is squarely presented.
Both sides point to language in the amendment itself to support their position.
The residents who challenged the district's law, joined by groups such as the National Rifle Association, said the amendment's language is clear: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
But the district, joined by handgun control groups, argued that the Second Amendment only protects the collective right to bear arms. They contended that the amendment was designed to protect, as the amendment also says, the right of state governments to assemble "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state."