As with free speech, Americans have a fundamental right to own guns, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday, answering a centuries-old debate and threatening laws and regulations enacted by states and cities that outlaw handgun ownership or impose tight controls on assault weapons.
Concluding that citizens can own firearms for self-defence, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, reasoned that the framers of the Constitution regarded "the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty."
The landmark 5-4 ruling in the long and bitter battle over the meaning of the Second Amendment makes clear that individual citizens - not just 18th-century militias - have a Constitutional right to bear arms. It amounts to a major, albeit narrow, victory for gun-rights advocates, who have long argued that outlawing guns keeps them from law-abiding citizens while allowing armed criminals to run amok.
Wayne Lapierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States, called the decision "a great moment in American history," but warned that the ruling will prove worthless unless it is enforced.
"I'm a practical guy. I don't want to win on philosophy and lose on freedom," he said. "What good is a right without the gun?" he added, calling for the courts to roll back laws that make gun ownership difficult. "Here's a piece of paper - protect yourself. That's no right at all."
Gun-control advocates warned the ruling will result in more bloodshed.
"People will die because of this decision," said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center. "It is a victory only for the gun lobby and America's fading firearms industry."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest anti-firearms lobby in the United States, said the decision still allows for reasonable limits on gun ownership.
"The Second Amendment individual right to possess guns in the home for self-defence does not prevent our elected representatives from enacting common-sense gun laws to protect our communities from gun violence," he said in a statement.
The "gun lobby argument that its 'any gun, for anybody, anywhere' agenda is protected by the Constitution" was rejected by the Supreme Court, Mr. Helmke added.
The ruling sparked an immediate debate over its practical consequences. A host of challenges to local and state laws are expected. But whether gun-control laws can be redrafted to avoid infringing on what the court has ruled is an individual right may take years to become clear.
The ruling means "the Second Amendment joins other provisions of the Bill of Rights that are routinely enforced against both federal and state infringements," Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, wrote in an online discussion at a New York Times blog of contributing experts.
"It may wind up being protected fairly well - as, say, First Amendment speech rights generally are - or poorly, as Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure often are, but it is now a full-fledged part of the Bill of Rights, not a neglected stepchild."
Five of the court's nine judges wrote opinions in the case. Perhaps second only to abortion, gun control and the right to bear arms remains the most divisive and hotly contested issue in the United States.
More than 60,000 people are shot annually in the United States, many of them family members shot accidentally or in domestic disputes in households with legally owned and licensed firearms. But thousands of others are shot in violent and drug-ridden urban slums, often with illegal guns.
The court did not rule on the constitutionality of Chicago's handgun ban - one of the nation's toughest. Instead the decision sent the Chicago ban back to the lower courts to decide whether it conforms with the ruling.
"The reasons that motivated the framers to protect the ability of militiamen to keep muskets available for military use when our nation was in its infancy .... have only a limited bearing on the question that confronts the homeowner in a crime-infested metropolis today," wrote one of the four dissenting judges, Justice John Paul Stevens, in his last opinion. He retired Monday.
The Supreme Court ruling was made on a challenge to a Chicago law that severely limits handgun ownership. Despite "doomsday proclamations, [the court's decision]does not imperil every law regulating firearms," Judge Alito wrote, adding that many jurisdictions already have reasonable laws keeping guns out of the hands of convicted criminals and the mentally ill and banning them from places such as schools and civic buildings.
For centuries, the meaning of the Constitution's oddly worded Second Amendment has been hotly debated as to the intent of the framers. "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."
Proponents of gun control contend it was intended to allow for militias comprised of a largely rural citizenry of farmers to keep weapons. The Supreme Court upheld the opposing view - that the Second Amendment means that every citizen has the right to own firearms.
Judge Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas comprised the majority.
Judge Stephens and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were opposed.