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US Supreme Court Rules Americans Have Right to Own Guns

For the first time in history, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a definitive ruling on the right of Americans to own guns. A five-to-four majority of the court ruled that individual citizens have the right to own firearms, and in the process it struck down a 32-year-old ban on handguns in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the high court's landmark ruling from Washington.

Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does protect the rights of individuals to own firearms for personal use.

Legal scholars have long debated whether the Second Amendment guaranteed the right of individuals to possess firearms, or if it merely applied to state militias.

Attorney Alan Gura says the high court's historic ruling makes it clear that individuals do have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Gura represented a Washington, D.C. resident who wanted the city's 32-year-old ban on handguns struck down.

"People do have an individual right to keep and bear arms, that is very important to remember. That means that the government cannot ban handguns, it cannot regulate guns out of existence. We feel today is a fantastic day for liberty once again," Gura said.

Gura represented security guard Dick Heller. Heller lives in a high-crime section of Washington and challenged the city's handgun ban so he could defend himself.

"I am very pleased to have been able to take this case, with help from my attorneys, all the way to the highest court in the land. And I am very happy that now I am able to defend myself and my household in my own home," Heller said.

Among those welcoming the high court's decision was President Bush. The White House issued a statement saying the president strongly agrees with the court's majority opinion.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain also praised the decision as a landmark victory for freedom in the United States.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama issued a statement that said the court decision will provide guidance to local communities trying to balance the rights of gun owners with the need to protect citizens in high crime areas of the country.

The four Supreme Court justices in the minority who wanted to uphold the handgun ban argued that striking down the Washington, D.C. law would open up other gun control statutes to constitutional challenges.

Gun control advocates were disappointed but not surprised by the Supreme Court ruling.

'We are obviously disappointed and disagree with the majority opinion. This takes off the idea that you can have a near total ban on guns, especially guns for self-defense,' said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence.

But Helmke noted that in his majority opinion, Justice Scalia said that although the court recognizes an individual right to bear arms, that right is not unlimited.

"It is clear that what the court did today was that they limited the extremes. They said that you can no longer have near total prohibitions on guns, but they also said you can have reasonable restrictions on guns," he said.

In his opinion, Scalia said the ruling should not be used to cast doubt on existing gun control laws that keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentally ill, and prevent weapons from being carried into schools and government buildings.

Gura says Thursday's Supreme Court decision will have far-reaching legal ramifications for government attempts to enact new gun control measures.

"We are not going to see the end of instant background checks. We are not going to see the end of the ban on felons or lunatics having guns. But, when the government regulates guns, it has to remember that it is potentially stepping on an important individual right and it is going to be made to respect that right," he said

The high court last took up the issue of the Second Amendment and gun ownership in 1939, but legal scholars say the court at that time did not directly settle the question of whether individual citizens have a right to bear arms.