WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court set the stage for a historic ruling on gun rights and the Second Amendment by agreeing Wednesday to hear a challenge to Chicago's ban on handguns.
At issue is whether state and local gun-control ordinances can be struck down as violating the "right to keep and bear arms" in the Second Amendment.
A ruling on the issue, due by the summer, could open the door to legal challenges to gun control measures in U.S. cities and states. The case also will decide whether the Second Amendment protects a broad constitutional right, similar to the First Amendment's right to free speech or the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
In the past, the Supreme Court had given short shrift to the Second Amendment by saying it applies only to national laws and that its aim is to preserve "well-regulated militias."
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This narrow view of the amendment conflicted with the views of most Americans, according to opinion polls.
Last year, the court in a 5-4 decision breathed new life into the amendment by ruling that it protected an individual's right to have a handgun at home for self-defense. The decision in District of Columbia v. Heller struck down a local ban on handguns.
But since the nation's capital is a federal enclave, the court did not reconsider its 19th-century rulings that said the Second Amendment applies only to federal laws and restrictions.
Since then, several gun owners have filed new constitutional challenges in several cities, including Chicago and the nearby Village of Oak Park. They lost when judges there said they were bound by the high court's earlier rulings.
But the Supreme Court on Wednesday said it had voted to hear the appeals from gun owners in Chicago and Oak Park and to decide whether the Second Amendment restricts local and state laws as well as national measures.
Lawyers for the gun owners argued that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" set out in the Second Amendment is incorporated into the 14th Amendment and thereby applies to states and localities.
Lawyers on both sides of the dispute say the gun-rights case revives a once-fierce debate over how to read the Bill of Rights.
Since the First Amendment begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law respecting" such matters as an "establishment of religion" or "abridging the freedom of speech," it was understood originally to limit only Congress and the national government. The same was true of the other parts of the Bill of Rights.
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution. It says a state may not "abridge the privileges and immunities" of citizens nor deprive any person of "liberty... without due process of law."
In the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court decided that such fundamental rights as the freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion and the freedom from unreasonable searches are part of the "liberty" protected by the 14th Amendment. These rulings permit constitutional challenges to state and local laws.
The Second Amendment was all but ignored by the court until recently.
In their appeal, lawyers for the gun owners say the court should rule either that the right "to keep and bear arms" is a "privilege" of citizenship or is part of the "liberty" protected by the 14th Amendment.
Lawyers for Chicago had urged the court to reject the appeal. They said that easily concealed handguns pose a special danger in cities. "Homicides are most often committed with guns, especially handguns," they said, citing a Justice Department study. The city also said that although nearly all handguns are illegal, residents are permitted to have rifles or shotguns at home for self-defense.
It is not clear whether the court will rule squarely on whether the Chicago ordinance is constitutional. Lawyers for the city proposed that if the justices take up the issue, they rule only on whether the ordinance can be challenged under the Second Amendment, and then send the dispute back to Chicago for a trial.
The court said it will set arguments for January or February. The case is McDonald v. Chicago.