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"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." Americans have been arguing about that sentence in the Bill of Rights for decades. And a court ruling today is likely to bring the debate over the Second Amendment front and center once again.

A federal appeals court overturned Washington, D.C.'s restriction on handgun ownership in a case that could be headed for the Supreme Court.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Washington, D.C., has always had some of the nation's toughest gun laws. Most residents can't own a handgun unless it was registered with the city before 1976. And even people who do own a gun like that have to keep it locked up and unloaded. Not anymore if the appellate court ruling stands.

Two of three judges said those restrictions are unconstitutional, and then they went further. It's not just a matter of local laws, they wrote, it's the Second Amendment. People have a right to own guns. The National Rifle Association is ecstatic.

JOHN FRAZER: This is a very significant decision, I would say hugely important decision.

SULLIVAN: John Frazer is the deputy director of research for the NRA.

FRAZER: This is a strong decision that restores the historical understanding of what the Second Amendment means and that also should have a big effect in terms of the right of district residents who currently are unable to protect themselves due to their local gun laws.

SULLIVAN: Not everyone sees it that way. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, took a page from the conservative handbook and called the ruling judicial activism.

PAUL HELMKE: In effect, it's judges stepping in and substituting their policy decisions for the decisions of the people of the District of Columbia.

SULLIVAN: The question the court tackled was this: Did the founding fathers mean that every person has the right to keep a gun, or were they just talking about militias? The U.S. Supreme Court has never taken a clear stand on the issue and hasn't really looked at it since 1939. That ruling left it to elected officials in states and localities to decide who could own guns and how, but the appellate ruling today says you can't regulate guns so much that people can't own one. Helmke of the Brady Center says it's the first time gun-control laws have been successfully challenged on the grounds of the Second Amendment.

HELMKE: It really is a very surprising and shocking decision because it ignores 70 years of precedent.

SULLIVAN: Advocates on both sides of the issue say this case is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court. Given the addition of two conservative justices to the bench, Helmke says he and other gun-control lobbyists are more than a little nervous.

HELMKE: If the Supreme Court steps in and all of a sudden switches its view on what the Second Amendment says, that could really call into jeopardy a lot of pieces of legislation that states and communities across the country have adopted for years.

SULLIVAN: Right now, it's up to the District of Columbia to decide whether to ask for a full panel of judges on the appellate court to reconsider, or they can appeal directly to the Supreme Court. If the high court takes the divisive case, oral arguments could come as early as next year, just in time for the presidential election.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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