It's the first time since 1939 that the justices will confront the Constitution's right to bear arms.
The US Supreme Court has agreed to examine one of the most disputed provisions of the Constitution – the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
On Tuesday, the justices announced they will take up an appeal involving the constitutionality of a Washington, D.C., law that bans the use or possession of all handguns.
The case is expected to make guns a key issue in next year's presidential and congressional elections, with the high court likely to hand down a decision in late June – four months before voters go to the polls.
Analysts are calling it political dynamite.
"This will be one of the biggest decisions ever to come down at that part of the political schedule," says Paul Helmke, president of the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
"For the first time in history we could get a definitive ruling on what the Second Amendment really means," adds Dave Workman, an editor at Gun Week in Bellevue, Wash. "Gun rights is going to become a centerpiece of the 2008 presidential race, whether these guys like it or not."
The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, will take the justices back to the founding of the republic to the speeches and writings of the framers themselves in an effort to decode a constitutional enigma that has divided appeals court judges and the nation's most distinguished legal scholars.
The potential landmark case is the first time since 1939 that the Supreme Court will confront whether the Second Amendment protects an individual's right of gun ownership or merely a collective right to keep and bear arms while serving in a state militia.
The answer is important because it could set the ground rules for gun-control laws across the country. If the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, it will limit government efforts to restrict the prevalence of guns among law-abiding citizens. Gun-control efforts would have to be reasonably related to a government interest, and entire categories of firearms – like handguns – could not be banned.
In contrast, if the right to keep and bear arms is a collective right exercised solely for the purpose of serving in a state militia, individual gun owners could not claim the protection of the Constitution against gun-control laws regulating the private use of firearms.