WASHINGTON — Despite mountains of scholarly research, enough books to fill a library shelf and decades of political battles about gun control, the Supreme Court will have an opportunity on Tuesday that is almost unique for a modern court when it examines whether the District of Columbia's handgun ban violates the Second Amendment.
The nine justices, none of whom has ever ruled directly on the amendment's meaning, will consider a part of the Bill of Rights that has existed without a definitive interpretation for more than 200 years.
"This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting the meaning of an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent," said Randy Barnett, a constitutional scholar at the Georgetown University Law Center. "And that's why there's so much discussion on the original meaning of the Second Amendment."
The outcome could roil the 2008 political campaigns, send a national message about what kinds of gun control are constitutional, and finally settle the question of whether the 27-word amendment, with its odd structure and antiquated punctuation, provides an individual right to gun ownership or simply pertains to militia service.
"The case has been structured so that they have to confront the threshold question," said Robert Levy, a wealthy libertarian lawyer who has spent five years and his own money to bring District of Columbia vs. Heller to the Supreme Court. "I think they have to come to grips with that."
The District of Columbia passed the nation's strictest gun-control law in 1976, just after residents were granted the authority to govern themselves. It virtually bans the private possession of handguns, and requires rifles and shotguns in the home be kept unloaded and disassembled or outfitted with a trigger lock.
The law's challengers say the measure has been a failure at cutting crime or stanching the city's homicide rate, and a success only in depriving the law-abiding of a ready weapon for protection. The city contends banning handguns is a logical decision in an urban setting, where more guns would result in more killings.
The case could be a revealing test of the court headed by Chief Justice John Roberts. He came to the bench saying justices should decide cases as narrowly as possible, but last year was part of a slim majority that made bold breaks with the court's jurisprudence in cases both recent and old on issues such as school integration and abortion.
Clues to the justices' interpretation of the Second Amendment are scant. A ruling is not expected until near the end of the court's term in late June.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the local gun control ordinance on Second Amendment grounds.
The amendment says that "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," and all but one of the circuits that considered the issue interpreted it as providing a gun ownership right related only to military service.