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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Individual Americans have a right to own guns, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday for the first time in the country's history, striking down a strict gun control law in the U.S. capital.
The landmark 5-4 ruling marked the first time in nearly 70 years the high court has addressed the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It rejected the argument the right to keep and bear arms was tied to service in a state militia.
Justice Antonin Scalia said for the majority the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with militia service and to use it for traditional lawful purposes, such as self-defense in the home.
However, he said the new right was not unlimited.
The court struck down two parts of the country's strictest gun control law adopted in Washington, D.C., 32 years ago -- the ban on private handgun possession and the requirement that firearms kept at home be unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.
The ruling marked the first time the court has struck down a gun control law for violating the Second Amendment.
The ruling won praise from President George W. Bush, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Wayne LaPierre of the politically powerful National Rifle Association, who said, "This is a great moment in American history."
It drew fire from gun control groups, which warned of new legal attacks on existing gun laws, and some Democrats in Congress like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who said the decision "opens this nation to a dramatic lack of safety."
The four liberal dissenting justices warned of the ruling's consequences. "The decision threatens to throw into doubt the constitutionality of gun laws throughout the United States," Justice Stephen Breyer said.
Although an individual now has a constitutional right to own guns, that new right is not unlimited, wrote Scalia, a hunter.
He said the ruling should not be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill or on laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in places like schools and government buildings or laws imposing conditions on gun sales.
The Supreme Court's last review of the Second Amendment came in a five-page discussion in an opinion issued in 1939 that failed to definitively resolve the constitutional issue.
In the 64-page opinion, Scalia said an individual right to bear arms is supported by "the historical narrative" both before and after the Second Amendment's adoption.
"What is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct," he said.
"Few laws in the history of our nation have come close to the severe restriction of the district's handgun ban," Scalia said.
Scalia said a citizen may prefer may prefer a handgun for home defense because "it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police."
The justices split along conservative-liberal lines in the ruling, one of the most important of the court's current term, in deciding a legal battle over gun rights in America. The ruling came on the last day of the court's 2007-08 term.
Bush's two appointees on the court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both voted with the majority in finding an individual right to keep firearms.
Bush said in a statement he applauded the "historic decision today confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear firearms."
Republican presidential candidate John McCain applauded the ruling and criticized his Democratic opponent Barack Obama for comments he had made during the political campaign.
"Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today's ruling recognizes that gun ownership is a fundamental right -- sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly," McCain said.
"I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms," Obama said, "but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common sense, effective safety measures."
The United States is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate. Gun deaths average 80 a day in the United States, 34 of them homicides, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
The ruling was a victory for Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard who lives in a high-crime neighborhood and who wants to keep a handgun in his home for self-defense.
For decades, the meaning of the Second Amendment has been at the heart of a political and legal debate debate over gun control. People have argued whether it guarantees the right to bear arms to individuals or to citizens in a militia.
Written more than 200 years ago, the amendment says, "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."
In a dissent, parts of which he read from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court left for future cases the formidable task of defining the scope of permissible gun regulations.
"I fear that the district's policy choice may well be just the first of an unknown number of dominoes to be knocked off the table," Stevens said.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Deborah Charles and David Wiessler