For the first time in 70 years, the Supreme Court will hear a major case Tuesday over the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. The case could affect gun control laws across the country.
At issue is one of the great unresolved constitutional questions: Does the Second Amendment protect an individual's right to keep and carry a gun, or does it only protect a state's right to arm a militia?
The case came to the high court after Washington, D.C., resident Shelly Parker sued the city over its gun control law, which has been in effect since 1976. It is one of the toughest gun laws in the nation, banning handguns and requiring shotguns to be locked up.
"The criminals have the guns," Parker said. "If you are a law-abiding citizen, the law in this city says you do not have a gun." A lower court ruled in favor of Parker and overturned the gun law.
But the city's mayor, Adrian Fenty, is fighting to keep the gun control law on the books. He says tough gun laws are essential in the city, where the crime rate is among the highest in the nation.
"Whatever right the Second Amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die," Fenty said.
There has been a deep split on the issue in lower courts. While a majority of courts have said that the right to bear arms refers in connection to service in a state militia, two federal courts have said the amendment protects an individual's right to keep a gun.
The mayor is concerned that if the Supreme Court rules against the gun ban, there will be even more handguns available in the streets. "The District of Columbia has too many handguns," Fenty said.
His lawyers argue in court papers that "handguns are the weapon most likely to be used in a street crime. Although only a third of the nation's firearms are handguns, they are responsible for far more killings, woundings and crimes than all other types of firearms combined."
But lawyers opposing the gun ban argue that the city's efforts to fight crime are falling short. They write in court papers that the city "consistently fights to secure its right to stand by while its citizens are victimized by crime."
Gun control advocates worry that court action against the ban will embolden gun rights advocates. Dennis A. Henigan, of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says that the "whole purpose of the litigation is to achieve a Supreme Court precedent that they will use to attack many other laws."
"This will inspire years and years of litigation and undercut the network of gun laws."
The case should be decided by early summer, only months before the next presidential election. For now, the Washington, D.C., gun ban stays in effect.