June 26, 2008— -- The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the District of Columbia cannot ban a citizen from keeping a handgun at home, throwing out one of the nation's strictest gun control laws.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and carry a gun. The decision will affect gun control laws across the country.
"We hold that the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violated the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."
He addressed the "problem of handgun violence" by saying there are a "variety of tools" such as "measures regulating handguns" available. But he said that the "enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table," which includes measures such as an "absolute prohibition of handguns."
Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito signed onto Scalia's opinion.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined in opposition to the majority opinion by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Stephen Breyer, the three other liberal members of the court, read his dissent from bench.
He said, "a conclusion that the Second Amendment protects an individual right does not tell us anything about the scope of that right."
He expressed worry that the decision would chip away at other gun control laws in the future. "I fear that the District's policy choice may well be just the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table."
It is the first time the court has ever definitively addressed the issue, which had been one of the great unresolved constitutional questions as experts debated whether the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and carry a gun, or only a state's right to arm a militia.
While statistics show that overall violent crime numbers are down in most big cities around the country, there has been an increase in crime in Washington DC, Cleveland and Baltimore. In the nation's capital there were 181 murders in 2007.
The issue 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. The law bans handguns and requires shot guns to be locked up.
"The criminals have the guns," Parker argued. "If you are a law-abiding citizen, the law in this city says you do not have a gun."
But the city's mayor, Adrian Fenty, has fought 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.
In supporting his gun law the mayor had said "The District of Columbia has too many handguns."
His lawyers argued 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 argued that the city's efforts to fight crime are falling short. In court papers they said that the city "consistently fights to secure its right to stand by while its citizens are victimized by crime."
Recent polls have found that most Americans believe an individual has the right to own a gun. According to Gary Langer, head of the ABC News Polling Unit, "While gun control in general is popular, banning handguns entirely is not; better enforcement is preferred to new legislation; three-quarters believe the Constitution guarantees individuals the right to own guns; and culture get more blame for gun violence than the availability of guns."
Gun's rights advocates will now turn their attention to other cities like Chicago with strict gun control laws and argue that those laws should be overturned as well.
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," he said.
CLICK HERE to read the official Supreme Court ruling (PDF opens in new window)
ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.