WASHINGTON -- A U.S. appeals court struck down yesterday a strict ban on owning firearms in the nation's capital, setting the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the scope of the Second Amendment and whether it expressly protects a person's right to own a gun.
Lawyers on both sides of the gun-control debate called the decision significant - the first time a federal appeals court has voided a gun law on the basis of the Second Amendment. For that reason, the case is expected to reach the nation's highest court.
If the justices were to agree with the lower court, the ruling would likely not sweep aside the many laws that regulate guns and gun ownership. However, it could cast doubt on measures that forbid law-abiding residents from possessing a weapon.
Although the Second Amendment is among the best-known provisions of the Constitution, it has had little impact on the law.
Gun owners, led by the National Rifle Association, have spotlighted the amendment's reference to "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" in waging political battles against efforts to limit the availability of weapons.
But in the Supreme Court's only major ruling that interpreted the amendment, it focused on the measure's opening words, which speak of "a well-regulated Militia" being "necessary to the security of a free State."
In upholding a federal law against transporting machine guns across state lines, the justices characterized the Second Amendment as being concerned only with "the preservation of a well-regulated militia."
Yesterday's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia could cause them to reconsider that conclusion.
Breaking with precedent, the 2-1 decision said the government may not forbid residents from owning "functional firearms" for self-defense at home.
The District of Columbia law in dispute barred virtually all of the city's residents from keeping in their homes handguns that had not been registered before 1976. Exceptions were made for active-duty and retired police officers.
The majority opinion by Judge Laurence H. Silberman said: "Once we have determined - as we have done - that handguns are 'arms' referred to in the Second Amendment, it is not open to the District to ban them."
He said this interpretation would not prevent cities, states or federal authorities from imposing "reasonable regulations" on gun ownership and possession.
A leading gun-control advocate denounced the ruling as "judicial activism at its worst."
"By disregarding 70 years of Supreme Court precedent, two federal judges have negated the democratically expressed will of the people of the District of Columbia," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
John Snyder, a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said the decision was a first step toward correcting an "erroneous interpretation of part of our Bill of Rights."
The Washington ordinance that was struck down was among the nation's most restrictive - since only police officers and retired officers are given permits for a weapon.
"It basically forbids everyone from having a gun," said Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia. New York and Chicago have similarly restrictive measures, he said.
In California, owners of handguns are required to register the weapons with the state.
Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he was "deeply disappointed and, quite frankly, outraged" by the decision. He vowed to appeal it.
The meaning of the Second Amendment has been fiercely debated for decades. Some scholars say it was intended to protect the community's right to defend itself with a local militia, which provided the nation much of its security in its early days.
These scholars say the words "keep and bear arms" referred to an organized military unit, not individuals acting on their own.
Conservatives argue that in the Colonial era, Americans believed they had a right to protect themselves and their homes with a gun.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.