Supreme court to decide how far gun rights extend

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 30, 2009 2:43pm EDT

A visitor holds a handgun during the NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits in Phoenix, Arizona May 15, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

A visitor holds a handgun during the NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits in Phoenix, Arizona May 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court revived the legal battle over gun rights in America, saying it would decide whether the constitutional right of individuals to own firearms trumped state and local laws.

In a brief order on Wednesday, the court said it would settle the question by ruling in a dispute over a strict gun control law in Chicago that bans the ownership of handguns in most cases.

Individuals and gun rights groups had challenged the law.

Eighty percent of Chicago's 510 murders in 2008 were committed with guns -- among them 34 Chicago schoolchildren.

Gun control advocates said the decision was no surprise. They expected the court would merely reinforce last year's ruling upholding a constitutional right to bear arms narrowly limited to guns in the home for self-defense.

Gun rights cases have been among the country's most divisive social, political and legal issues. The Supreme Court split, in a 5-4 vote, between the conservative and liberal factions, in the 2008 ruling.

The ruling last year prohibited the federal government from imposing certain restrictions, but it left unclear whether the right also applied to state and local gun control laws.

The justices are expected to hear arguments early next year with a decision likely by late June.

GUNS CROSS STATE BORDERS

The United States is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate. Gun deaths average about 80 a day, 34 of them homicides, according to U.S. government statistics.

Many researchers believe the few U.S. cities that have gun control laws are acting largely symbolically in a country with 250 million guns that can be easily transported across city and state boundaries.

Gun shops are clustered outside Chicago's borders.

"The fact that there are two exceptions in the U.S. does not change the perception of the rest of the world that we are a gun-toting place," said Jens Ludwig, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and director of the school's Crime Lab.

"(Gun control advocates are) worried if the bans fall all hell is going to break loose. But it's not clear that lifting the bans will have the extreme adverse impact people fear," Ludwig said.

Gun control laws do not appreciably change the rate of household gun ownership, he said, and historically Chicago has had a low rate.

New York has a strict permit process that amounts to a gun ban and if Chicago's ban is struck down it could create similar barriers to gun ownership, unless the Supreme Court rules broadly and forbids all restrictions.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Howard Goller)

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