WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday struck down a 30-year-old Washington, D.C., law that bans handguns in homes, a precedent-setting ruling that dealt a setback to a city with one of America's highest crime rates.
By a 2-1 vote, the appeals court broadly interpreted an individual's constitutional right under the Second Amendment to bear arms, and concluded the law violated those rights.
"Once we have determined -- as we have done -- that handguns are 'arms' referred to in the Second Amendment, it is not open to the District to ban them," Judge Laurence Silberman wrote for the majority of a three-judge appeals court panel.
The Second 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."
City lawyers argued the amendment guarantees the right to bear arms only for members of a militia, like today's National Guard, and not for individuals.
Silberman embraced the position that the Bush administration has advocated -- that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms.
District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty said the ruling only addressed handgun possession in the home, not whether the city can regulate handguns elsewhere.
He said the ruling also turned aside long-standing precedent and marked the first time in U.S. history that a federal appeals court has struck down a gun law on Second Amendment grounds.
"I am personally deeply disappointed and quite frankly outraged by today's decision. Today's decision flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia," he said during a televised news conference.
Fenty vowed to get the decision overturned, saying the city would likely ask all members of appeals court to review the case. In the meantime, he said the city will vigorously enforce its handgun law.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, criticized the ruling.
"On the same day a new report demonstrated a sharp rise in violent crime, a federal court handed down a decision that could pour even more guns onto the streets of our nation's capital. This decision is a major setback in the effort to make communities safer," he said.
The appeals court also struck down another provision that bans the moving of a handgun from room to room in one's own house. "Just as the District may not flatly ban the keeping of a handgun in the home, obviously it may not prevent it from being moved throughout one's house," Silberman wrote.
It also declared unconstitutional a third provision that all lawfully owned firearms be kept unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.
Six residents had brought the challenge to the city's laws.
The National Rifle Association, which opposes gun control laws, hailed the decision. "Today's ruling should have a positive impact on the current D.C. gun ban the National Rifle Association is fighting to overcome," it said in a statement.
Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented, saying the Second Amendment did not apply to the District of Columbia because it is not a state.