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US Court to decide upon handgun ban in Washington

The United States' top court will decide the fate of handgun ban in Washington, a case that could produce the most in-depth examination of the constitutional right to bear arms in nearly 70 years.

The Supreme Court justices' decision to hear the case could make the divisive debate over guns an issue in the 2008 presidential and congressional elections.

The government of Washington is asking the court to uphold its 31-year ban on handgun ownership in the face of a federal appeals court ruling that struck down the ban as incompatible with the U.S. constitution. Tuesday's announcement was widely expected, especially after both the city and the man who challenged the handgun ban asked for the high court review.

The main issue before the justices is whether the constitution protects an individual's right to own guns or instead merely sets forth the collective right of states to maintain militias. The former interpretation would permit fewer restrictions on gun ownership.

Gun-control advocates say the constitution was intended to insure that states could maintain militias, a response to 18th century fears of an all-powerful national government. Gun rights proponents contend the constitution gives individuals the right to keep guns for private uses, including self-defense.

The last Supreme Court ruling on the topic came in 1939 in U.S. v. Miller, which involved a sawed-off shotgun. That decision supported the collective rights view, but did not squarely answer the question in the view of many constitutional scholars. Chief Justice John Roberts said at his confirmation hearing that the correct reading of the constitution was "still very much an open issue."