WASHINGTON — Silent on central questions of gun control for two centuries, the Supreme Court found its voice Thursday and decided for the first time in the nation's history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own a gun for self-defense.
The court's 5-4 decision split along ideological grounds and wiped away years of lower court decisions that had held the intent of the amendment was to tie the right of gun possession to militia service.
The ruling struck down the District of Columbia's ban on handguns, the strictest gun-control law in the country, and imperiled similar bans in other cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. Federal gun restrictions, however, are expected to remain largely intact.
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 tied to service in a state militia, a once-vital, now-archaic grouping of citizens. That's been the heart of the gun control debate for decades.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said an individual right to bear arms exists and is supported by "the historical narrative" before and after the amendment was adopted.
Scalia's opinion, his most important in his 22 years on the court, said that the justices were "aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country" and "take seriously" the arguments in favor of prohibiting handgun ownership. "But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table," he said, adding: "It is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct."
Scalia's opinion was signed by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens took vigorous issue with Scalia's assertion that it was the Second Amendment that had enshrined the individual right to own a gun. Rather, it was "today's law-changing decision" that bestowed the right and created "a dramatic upheaval in the law," he said in a dissent joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The full implications of the decision are not sorted out. Still to be seen, for example, is the extent to which the right to have a gun for protection in the home may extend outside the home.
The court also struck down D.C. requirements that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or be kept disassembled, but left intact the licensing of guns. The district allows shotguns and rifles to be kept in homes if they are registered, kept unloaded and taken apart or equipped with trigger locks.
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."
The reaction to the ruling broke less along party lines than along the divide between cities wracked with gun violence and rural areas where gun ownership is embedded in daily life.
President Bush said, "I applaud the Supreme Court's historic decision today confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear firearms."
Both major party presidential candidates expressed support for the decision — more full-throated support from Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and a more guarded statement of support from Sen. Barack Obama, his presumptive Democratic opponent.
McCain called the decision "a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom in the United States" that "ended forever the specious argument that the Second Amendment did not confer an individual right to keep and bear arms."
Obama, who like McCain has been on record as supporting the individual-rights view, said the ruling would "provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country." He praised the decision both for its endorsement of the individual-rights view and for its description of the right as "not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe."
Another Chicagoan, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, called the ruling "very frightening" and predicted more violence and higher taxes to pay for extra police if his city's gun restrictions are lost.
Robert Levy, a libertarian attorney who developed the strategy for challenging the law, said the court's ruling should be clear: "The District may not attempt to solve its crime problems by violating the rights of law-abiding citizens."
Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.