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Historic case may decide U.S. gun rights

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But that's also what makes it unpredictable, according to other analysts.

"We have no track record on any of this," says John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who embraces the militia-service view.

The justices must decide what the authors of the Second Amendment meant when they wrote and approved these words: "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."

In addition to settling a historic debate, how the high court reads those words will hold important implications for the constitutionality of gun control measures across the US. It could also inject the fiery issue of guns into the 2008 campaigns for president and Congress.

The debate over gun rights and gun-control exists at a major fault line in American political culture. One side views guns as a threat to public safety; the other views them as a protection of personal safety and national liberty.

Specifically at issue before the court in District of Columbia v. Heller (07-290) is the constitutionality of a ban on handguns and other gun-control measures enacted 32 years ago in Washington, D.C.

Dick Anthony Heller, a special police officer at the Federal Judicial Center, wanted to keep a handgun in his Washington home for self-defense. But the city government refused to issue him a permit, citing the city's stringent gun laws.

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