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Last Updated: Monday, 31 December 2007, 12:20 GMT
Deep divisions over US gun control
By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

Gun control is expected to become a hot topic for the US presidential election as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on a controversial handgun ban in the nation's capital.

Richard Heller
Richard Heller says people have a right to defend their lives
For the last 31 years Washington DC has prohibited ownership of handguns in an attempt to curb high levels of violent crime.

But security guard Richard Heller has challenged the law, claiming that it denied residents the right to defend themselves.

"An event happened in 1997 when a young man defended his life with a handgun against a criminal who had gotten into his house, and the city prosecuted him," says Mr Heller.

"This could happen to anyone and that's not what we have a government for - to hurt the people. But that's the effect of the gun ban. It makes people victims who have a right to defend their lives - and that's a constitutional right."

'Clash of cultures'

The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights has always been open to interpretation - partly because of its peculiar and hence controversial punctuation.

It reads: "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."

On the one hand you have a culture of self-defence in which firearms enable us to protect ourselves. And on the other side... there has been a culture of using gun control to address the problem of violent crime
Professor Randy Barnett
Georgetown University Law Center

Some experts say it implies a collective right to defence through gun control while others say it guarantees individual freedom.

In March, a district court agreed with Mr Heller that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms and that the city's ban was unconstitutional.

The city appealed against the ruling and the Supreme Court will now decide what the 200-year-old Second Amendment really means.

"It's a clash of cultures," says constitutional law expert Professor Randy Barnett of the Georgetown University Law Center.

"It's the culture of individual self-defence as a protection against crime versus the culture of collective defence brought to you by government police departments.

"On the one hand you have a culture of self-defence in which firearms enable us to protect ourselves. And on the other side, at least since the sixties, there has been a culture of using gun control to address the problem of violent crime.

"People who favour this think it's absolutely essential there be controls on the rights of people to keep and bear arms or that people should be denied that right altogether in the interest of preventing crime."

Gun influx

According to the DC Metropolitan Police Department, there have been some 180 murders this year, up on last year's total of 169, a 20-year low.

The vast majority of the homicides were committed with a gun.

Police commander Michael Anzallo says the capital has seen an influx of handguns from neighbouring states where there are fewer controls.

Handguns seized by Washington DC police - file photo
Washington DC has banned handguns for 31 years
"The police department recovers more than 1,000 guns a year," he says.

"The problem is easy access to firearms. Most of the motives for homicides are arguments or robbery related and the quick pull of the trigger means somebody's life."

In Washington's notorious SE district, gun crime has blighted the community.

At a youth centre run by the outreach group Peaceoholics, every teenager knows somebody who has been shot. Most have been threatened with guns or have been made victims themselves.

"A lot of my friends and a lot of people I really loved have been killed by guns," says 18-year-old Carlos.

"A number of incidents happened in the summer when one of my good friends got killed while she was sitting in somebody's car. She got shot in the back of the neck. She was just at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Peaceoholics spokesman Daniel Bradley says gun controls are essential to protect the community.

"We've been fighting violence enough in the last 15 or 20 years and repealing the gun ban will just make things a lot worse," he says.

"You're saying we should make it easier to access guns in a place where over a six month span this year we had 16 girls shot and six died? When you put it like that it doesn't make any sense at all."

Well-armed nation

But gun rights supporters say the issue goes much further than crime and self-defence and raises fundamental questions about the extent of government in the US.

"Guns may not be necessary for everyone but I don't think that the government should tell me I can't do something," says Ben Meyer, an instructor at the Blue Ridge Arsenal in Virginia.

"I'm actually intelligent enough to make my own decisions, and that includes matters of my self defence. What you're assuming, by restricting guns, is that a person isn't capable of handling one or that they are going to break the law, and I think that's a little bit ridiculous."

"This is about the government suppressing the citizens," says Mr Heller.

"I simply thought, gee, let's take this to court and let them settle it, and any intelligent, reasonable set of judges would make the right decision for the people, knowing what the rights of the people are, and knowing the limitations the government is supposed to have."

The Supreme Court will discuss the issue in the New Year but a ruling is not expected for several months.

Surveys estimate that there are 90 guns for every 100 citizens in the US, making the country one of the most heavily-armed nations in the world, although that figure covers people who own multiple guns and many Americans do not possess firearms.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides will have implications for gun control across the country.

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