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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 22:21 GMT
US Supreme Court ponders gun law
Browning pistol
The debate over handguns is politically charged in the US
The US Supreme Court is to consider Americans' right to bear arms for the first time in nearly 70 years.

It has agreed to rule on whether a ban on handguns by the city of Washington, DC complies with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

The US capital has banned handguns since 1976.

The case is expected to be heard next spring, with a ruling in summer, and therefore could influence the presidential election in November.

The Supreme Court will consider a case brought by a Washington resident, Dick Heller, against his city council, arguing that he should be allowed to keep a handgun for his own protection.

The case was initially rejected, but a federal appeals court later overturned that judgement.

The city of Washington asked the Supreme Court to rule on the case, and on Tuesday it said it would - the first time it will have ruled on the divisive Second Amendment since 1939.

High murder rate

The Second Amendment states: "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 powerful gun lobby says this guarantees that citizens may bear arms, and is vehemently opposed to restrictions on that right.

But states which wish to impose gun control measures argue that it only means a "militia", ie a modern-day police force, is entitled to be armed.

A lawyer for Mr Heller and other Washington residents said: "We believe the Supreme Court will acknowledge that, while the use of guns can be regulated, a complete prohibition on all functional firearms is too extreme.

"It's time to restore a basic freedom to all Washington residents."

Washington council maintained: "Whatever right the Second Amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die."

With gun crime endemic in the US, the issue provokes heated argument. Some blame guns for the problem, while others say they are the best way to protect themselves against violence.

Firearms, including handguns, are used in two-thirds of murders and about 42.2% of robberies committed in the US, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

But supporters of gun rights point out that having one of the toughest laws in the US has not stopped Washington being one of its most murder-ridden cities - with 169 killings in 2006.



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