The U.S. Supreme Court has begun examining the constitutionality of the U.S. capital city's long-standing ban on handguns. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where justices heard impassioned arguments on the issue in a landmark case that could impact the right to bear arms nationwide.

Ratified in 1791, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights states, in part, that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." But for generations, Americans have argued whether the amendment provides a blanket authorization for citizens to possess the weapon of their choice, or whether the full language of the amendment ties the right to keep weapons with the establishment of citizen militias, which were common in the early years of the republic.

To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not definitively or comprehensively ruled on the right to bear arms. But that may soon change.

In the 1970s, the District of Columbia, in an effort to fight crime, banned residents of the nation's capital from possessing handguns. Although many U.S. municipalities have restrictions and stipulations on firearms, only Washington maintains an absolute prohibition on handguns.

Gun rights advocates are challenging the ban. Tuesday, the case reached the Supreme Court. For more than an hour, justices heard arguments not only on the merits of Washington's gun law, but also on the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment and those who crafted it more than 200 years ago.

Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to take a dim view of the handgun ban when he stated that the Second Amendment provides "a general right to bear arms." Justice Stephen Breyer, on the other hand, asked why it is unreasonable for a city with a high crime rate to ban handguns.

Afterwards, attorneys and others for both sides of the case spoke with the news media. Robert Levy, an attorney for those seeking to overturn the gun ban, gave his reasons for pursuing the case.

"This case is about self defense," he said. "It is about the right to keep and bear arms in the context of one's home. This is not about prohibiting Washington D.C. from regulating firearms. They can craft reasonable regulations."

"But an outright ban on all handguns in all homes at all times for all people is not a reasonable regulation. It is a prohibition. And we are hopeful that the court will find that to be unconstitutional," he continued.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has a different view of the matter.

"This is a public safety case," said Fenty. "Handguns represent a disproportionate number of crimes in the District of Columbia: everything from homicides to robbery to rape."

"The fact that we have had a handgun ban has significantly curtailed the number of violent crimes in the city. More guns anywhere in the District of Columbia is going to lead to more crime, and that is why we stand so steadfastly against any repeal of our handgun ban," he added.

A Supreme Court ruling on the matter is months away. Legal observers say the eventual decision could impact gun control laws across the nation.