The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Americans have a constitutional right to keep guns in their homes for self-defense, the justices' first major pronouncement on gun control in U.S. history.
The court's 5-4 ruling struck down Washington's 32-year-old ban on handguns as incompatible with gun rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision went further than even the Bush administration wanted, but probably leaves most firearms restrictions intact.
The court had not conclusively interpreted the Second Amendment since its ratification in 1791. 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."
The basic issue for the justices was whether the amendment protects an individual's right to own guns no matter what, or whether that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia.
The issue of gun rights has taken on increased prominence in the U.S. after a number of mass killings over the past few years. On Wednesday, a man shot dead five co-workers at a plant in Kentucky before turning the gun on himself.
With each such instance, concerns have been raised about the ease of procuring weapons. But there are many Americans who feel passionately that gun ownership is a part of their country's culture as well as a right guaranteed by the constitution. They have resisted efforts to ban sales of assault rifles and other such weapons that critics maintain serve no purpose other than to empower criminals.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that an individual right to bear arms is supported by "the historical narrative" both before and after the Second Amendment was adopted.
The Constitution does not permit "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home," Scalia said. The court also struck down Washington's requirement that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or kept disassembled, but left intact the licensing of guns.
Scalia noted that the handgun is Americans' preferred weapon of self-defense in part because "it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police."
In a dissent he summarized from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority "would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons."
He said such evidence "is nowhere to be found."
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a separate dissent in which he said, "In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas."
Joining Scalia were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. The other dissenters were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.
Gun rights supporters hailed the decision. "I consider this the opening salvo in a step-by-step process of providing relief for law-abiding Americans everywhere that have been deprived of this freedom," said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association.
The NRA will file lawsuits in San Francisco, Chicago and several of its suburbs challenging handgun restrictions there based on Thursday's outcome.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat and a leading gun control advocate in Congress, criticized the ruling. "I believe the people of this great country will be less safe because of it," she said.