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Court Action Threatens Softer Handgun Laws

by Simon Mann

WASHINGTON -  A legal challenge to Chicago's 28-year ban on handguns could shoot down the right of individual states and cities in America to draft their own gun laws.

An assortment of Colt and Glock semi-automatic handguns are on display at the Nations Gunshow in Chantilly, Virginia in 2009. The US Supreme Court on Tuesday takes a new look at the right to bear arms in a case that could impact the growing push by President Barack Obama's opponents to loosen gun laws. (AFP/File/Karen Bleier) The Supreme Court action by four citizens who want the right to defend themselves against potential assault and robbery could unleash a chain reaction that overturns restrictive gun laws across the country.

It comes 20 months after the highest court in the US ruled as unconstitutional similar handgun laws in Washington DC.

The legal challenge touches a hot button issue in America where gun laws are constantly derided by lobbyists, such as the powerful National Rifle Association, as running counter to the constitution's Second Amendment, which enshrines the right of citizens ''to keep and bear arms''.

In Virginia, legislators are also in the midst of a battle over guns, with Republicans trying to repeal a 17-year law limiting the purchase of handguns to one a month. The change would also allow Virginians to carry concealed weapons into bars and restaurants, provided the holder does not drink alcohol and has a so-called ''concealed-carry'' permit.

The plaintiffs believe that allowing citizens to keep guns in their houses would make some of Chicago's tougher neighbourhoods safer.

''Allowing law-abiding citizens, responsible adults, the right to keep handguns in their homes is not going to make [violence] any worse; it will likely make it better,'' Mike Weisman of the Illinois State Rifle Association, which is a plaintiff in the case, told the Chicago Tribune.

Anti-gun activists have been marshalling opposition, too; both sides are using statistics to support their argument. Some studies suggest crime rates rose after the gun ban was enacted in 1982 and that Chicago now ranks higher on a list of most dangerous US cities. But city officials argue that murder rates are down and more than 60 per cent of handgun killings are gang-related.

Against that is the rising number of youth homicides. Last year, Chicago had the nation's highest youth murder rate.

A similar debate rages in Washington, where last year murders dropped by 25 per cent to 140 after the handgun ban was lifted.

The court's decision is not expected before midyear.

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