MICHELE NORRIS: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block.
For the first time in 68 years, the Supreme Court is stepping into the constitutional debate over gun rights. Today, the justices said they will hear a case testing whether Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban violates the right to keeping their arms.
Alan Gura is the lead attorney challenging the D.C. gun law. He clearly viewed this step as a victory as he spoke outside the Supreme Court today.
ALAN GURA: It means that, finally, we have established the fact that people in our country have individual right to keeping their arms. Gun laws that make sense, gun laws that help the police solve crime or prevent crime are not going to be impacted by the case. However, laws that disarm people or laws that simple leave people defenseless at the mercy of criminals are going to fail.
BLOCK: Of course, the court has yet to hear the case, let alone rule.
Here's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: The Washington, D.C. case marks the first time since 1939 that the court has examined the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment 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.
Does that mean that the right to bear arms is guaranteed only in connection with state militias, the kind that existed at the time the Constitution was adopted? In short, is it a collective right associated with the National Guard or other military service? Or is it an individual right to own and use a gun?
The last time the court ruled on the matter, 68 years ago, the justices seemed to suggest that the right was a collective one, associated with maintaining state militias. Nine of the eleven federal appeals courts have long said the same thing.
But last year, the federal appeals court here in Washington, for the first time, ruled squarely that the Second Amendment was intended to protect individual gun rights. The city appealed with the Supreme Court and today, the justices agreed to hear the case, probably in the spring, with the decision expected by the end of June.
The case was initially brought by six district residents who live in high-crime areas and wanted to keep handguns at home for protection. The district contends that it has outlawed handguns because they are responsible for a 91 percent of armed assaults and the majority of the city's murders. It argues that the residents are free to have other firearms at home for self-protection. The appeals court called that proposition frivolous, noting that other weapons must either be trigger-locked or disassembled.
At rock bottom, though, this is the test case that gun rights advocates have long been seeking. If the court rules in favor of individual rights, gun advocates can see that will lead to other challenges of gun regulation around the country. If they lose, that likely will close the door to most legal challenges leaving the question of gun regulation, as it is now, largely in the hands of elected officials at the federal state and local levels.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.