WASHINGTON -- A sharply divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Constitution protects an individual's right to bear arms, while still leaving room for governments to regulate gun ownership.
By a 5-4 margin, the court struck down the District of Columbia's strict gun ban as an infringement on fundamental rights. The court's historic ruling reinterprets the Second Amendment for the first time in nearly 70 years, foreshadowing new challenges to local, state and federal gun laws.
"The Second Amendment protects an individual right to protect a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that arm for traditionally lawful proposes, such as self-defense within the home," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The court, however, cautioned that some gun laws will remain intact.
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"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," Scalia wrote. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
The decision was the last to be announced for the 2007-2008 term and was perhaps the most widely anticipated. Several dozen camera crews awaited reactions on the Supreme Court steps while pro-gun demonstrators carried signs such as one reading, "More guns equals less crime."
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined the majority. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer.
"The opinion the court announces today fails to identify any new evidence supporting the view that the amendment was intended to limit the power of Congress to regulate civilian uses of weapons," Stevens wrote.
The court's majority ruling repudiates the long-held notion that the right to bear arms is strictly linked to militia service. Instead, the court concluded that it is an individual right untethered to either military or government necessity. This will make it easier for gun rights advocates to resist new regulations or to overturn existing laws.
The Second Amendment states, with all its archaic capitalizations intact:
"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."
The District of Columbia since 1976 has essentially prohibited handgun ownership except by retired D.C. police officers. Rifles may be owned, but must be stored either disassembled or with a trigger lock.
The case, known as District of Columbia v. Heller, is named in part after Dick Heller, 66, a one-time security officer. He was one of six plaintiffs originally recruited to challenge the D.C. law, and the only one deemed by lower court judges to have the legal standing necessary to proceed.
Chicago is the only other city that bans handguns outright, and no state currently imposes a complete prohibition.
The case drew kibitzers from across the spectrum.
Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis had urged the court to uphold the D.C. gun ban, citing the "devastation caused by handguns in American cities." Handguns were used in 81 percent of all homicides committed between 1990 and 1998, the police chiefs noted. Sacramento, San Francisco and other cities added that, nationwide, an average of 737,000 violent crimes are committed annually with handguns. District attorneys stretching from California's rural Calaveras County to urban Dallas County in Texas warned of a "wave of Second Amendment litigation."
On the other side, groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association, Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty and 250 members of Congress urged the court to strike down D.C.'s gun ban. Texas and 30 other states, for instance, called D.C.'s prohibition "markedly out of step with the judgment of legislatures" that have more permissive gun rules.
The court last addressed the fundamental Second Amendment issue in a 1939 case called United States v. Miller, in which justices upheld a ban on sawed-off shotguns. That decision reasoned that owning a sawed-off shotgun was not reasonably related to the "preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia."