Guns, and questions about how much power the government has to keep people from owning them, are at the core of one of the most divisive topics in American politics. For decades, federal judges have ruled that the Constitution allows a range of gun-control measures imposed by governments seeking to curb gun violence. Lower court judges overwhelmingly have ruled that the right “to keep and bear arms” isn’t for individuals, but instead applies to state militias, such as National Guard units. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly declined to hear appeals of those rulings, fueling the debate over gun control and tension between the law and public opinion.
Now, in a benchmark case that arises against a backdrop of election-year politics, the high court will take its first definitive look at the Second Amendment. However the nine justices rule in the case, their decision will reshape the national debate over guns, a conflict that pits images of America’s history of frontier liberty against concerns about public safety. The case tests the constitutionality of a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., where in 1976 officials imposed one of the nation’s strictest gun-control laws in response to alarming levels of gun violence. The justices will hear arguments on March 18; a ruling is likely by July.