WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Constitution protects an individual's right to bear arms, while leaving room for governments to regulate gun ownership.
By 5-4, the court struck down the District of Columbia's strict gun ban as an infringement on fundamental rights. The court's historic ruling reinterprets the Second Amendment for the first time in nearly 70 years, foreshadowing new challenges to local, state and federal gun laws.
"There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The court cautioned, however, that some gun laws will remain intact.
"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," Scalia wrote. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
The decision was the last to be announced for the 2007-2008 term and perhaps the most widely anticipated. Several dozen camera crews awaited reactions on the Supreme Court steps while pro-gun demonstrators carried signs such as one reading, "More guns equals less crime."
Cheers erupted from gun supporters as news of the ruling reached spectators and throngs of reporters gathered at the bottom of the Supreme Court steps. "Good-bye — gun ban," one group chanted.
"I'm very happy that now I'm able to defend myself and my household in my own home," said Richard Heller, the Washington, D.C., resident who challenged the gun ban.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined the majority. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"The court's announcement of a new constitutional right to own and use firearms upsets (previous) understandings, but leaves for future cases the formidable task of defining the scope of permissible regulations," Stevens wrote.
The Second Amendment, with all its archaic capitalizations, says:
"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."
Following an excruciatingly detailed historical examination, the court's majority ruling repudiates the long-held notion that the right to bear arms is strictly linked to militia service. Instead, the court concluded that it's an individual right untethered to military or government necessity. This will make it easier for gun rights advocates to resist new regulations and overturn existing laws.
Scalia stressed that the Second Amendment's much-disputed language was designed to protect a "pre-existing right," and he characterized the notion of a militia as simply being "all able-bodied men" rather than an organized unit. Firearms, he added, might sometimes be needed to protect the citizens from the government itself.
"The threat that the new federal government would destroy the citizens' militia by taking away their arms was the reason that right ... was codified in a written Constitution," Scalia wrote.
The District of Columbia essentially has prohibited handgun ownership since 1976 except by retired district police officers. Rifles may be owned, but they must be stored disassembled or with trigger locks.
Heller, 66, a one-time security officer, was one of six plaintiffs originally recruited to challenge the law, and the only one whom lower court judges deemed to have the legal standing necessary to proceed.
The case drew kibitzers from across the spectrum, a number of whom showed up Thursday to celebrate or bemoan the decision and speculate over what happens next. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty predicted that "introducing more handguns into the District will mean more handgun violence," while others focused on new challenges.
"There are thousands of gun laws in the United States," said Alan Gura, Heller's attorney. "Some of them are going to survive. Some of them might not."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, expressed disappointment over the decision but said the majority interpretation of the Second Amendment "still allows commonsense gun control laws, restrictions to make us safer."
"They limited the extremes," Helmke said. "They said you can no longer have near-total prohibitions on guns but they also said you can have reasonable restrictions."
Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis, Minn., had urged the court to uphold the D.C. gun ban, citing the "devastation caused by handguns in American cities." Handguns were used in 81 percent of the homicides committed from 1990 to 1998, the police chiefs noted. San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., and other cities added that an average of 737,000 violent crimes are committed annually with handguns nationwide.
On the other side, groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association, Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty and members of Congress urged the court to strike down the gun ban. Texas and 30 other states, for instance, called the prohibition "markedly out of step with the judgment of legislatures" that have more permissive gun rules.
"From this day forward, the people of our country will have the right in any jurisdiction of America to protect themselves and their families in their homes, and that was our goal," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who led the congressional effort, said from the Supreme Court steps.
Hutchison's brief was signed by a bipartisan majority of Congress — 55 senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives. Vice President Dick Cheney, as the Senate's presiding officer, also signed, even though doing so put him at odds with a somewhat different position taken by the Bush administration's top lawyer.
The court last addressed the fundamental Second Amendment issue in a 1939 case called United States v. Miller, in which justices upheld a ban on sawed-off shotguns. That decision, which was not explicitly overturned Thursday, reasoned that owning a sawed-off shotgun wasn't reasonably related to the "preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia."