WASHINGTON (AFP) ó For the first time in 70 years, the US Supreme Court may decide next week whether to examine the question of the right to bear arms, something which is fiercely upheld by millions of Americans.
The US capital of Washington, which is trying to stem a wave of violence in its seedier neighborhoods, has lodged a case with the nine Supreme Court judges seeking to maintain its three-decade ban on individuals carrying handguns.
The judges were due to have an initial discussion on Friday, and their decision on whether or not to examine the question could be announced as early as Tuesday.
The case goes right to the heart of the American constitution, which in its second amendment declares 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."
Washington, which is also home to the president and the government, has interpreted the amendment to mean that there is a collective right to bear arms for those who are part of a police force or a security force.
But since 1976, it has banned residents from carrying handguns, although they are allowed to keep a rifle or hunting gun in their homes, providing it is locked and not loaded.
For millions of Americans though, and especially the powerful gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association, the second amendment guarantees the right of every American citizen to own any gun, with few limits.
In 2003, Washington resident Dick Heller, who lives in one of the city's tougher districts, lodged a suit against the local authorities saying his constitutional right to bear arms was being violated. Although his case was initially rejected, he won on appeal to a federal appeals court in March.
Washington officials in turn then lodged a case with the Supreme Court in September insisting that it must rule on the extent of access to handguns, the weapon of choice in two-thirds of robberies and assaults.
Handguns are also used in half of the 15,000 murders across the country every year, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
"Faced with the evidence that handguns pose a particularly serious threat to public safety, the council chose to ban handguns because it concluded that less restrictive regulations would be ineffective," the city said in its petition to the court.
"Whatever right the second amendment guarantees, it does not require the district to stand by while its citizens die."
If the court decides to examine the case, it would likely be heard sometime between February and April, with a ruling before the end of June, just a few months before the November 2008 presidential elections.
To date the Supreme Court has rarely considered the issue of the right to bear arms.
In the 19th century, it determined that the founding fathers meant the amendment to remain the remit of federal laws and left all the states in the union free to draw up their own gun laws.
Then in 1939, the court upheld a law requiring that arms transported from state to state should be registered.
But all states have formulated their own restrictions, which vary wildly.
Heller believes that the laws in Washington, which are similar to those in many big cities such as Chicago, New York or Detroit, are not just unconstitutional but also ineffective.
Last year in the city with 580,000 residents, there were 169 murders, 137 by firearms.
"This case presents the court a unique opportunity to correct a persistent misconception that the people do not actually enjoy a right that is specifically enumerated in the constitution," Heller says in his petition.
"'The people' -- individuals in our country -- retain the right to keep and bear arms."
His case is being backed by the American Civil Rights Union which says in his support: "This case presents questions of the highest importance, involving the fundamental meaning of the second amendment.
"In over 200 years, this court has still not resolved the basic questions regarding the amendment's meaning."