In a major decision addressing interpretation of the Second Amendment, a federal appeals court today overturned the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, declaring the constitutional right to bear arms is not limited to militias as the city had argued.

The majority opinion in the 2-1 decision said activities protected by the Second Amendment “are not limited to militia service, nor is an individual’s enjoyment of the right contingent upon his or her continued intermittent enrollment in the militia.”

The judges also ruled unconstitutional the city’s requirement that registered firearms be kept unloaded, disassembled and under trigger lock.

Writing for the majority, Judge Laurence Silberman said the Second Amendment’s “prefatory language announcing the desirability of a well regulated militia – even bearing in mind the breadth of the concept of a militia – is narrower than the guarantee of an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

“The Amendment does not protect ‘the right of militiamen to keep and bear arms,’ but rather ‘the right of the people,'” the judges asserted.

The opinion continued:

“The operative clause, properly read, protects the ownership and use of weaponry beyond that needed to preserve the state militias. Again, we point out that if the competent drafters of the Second Amendment had meant the right to be limited to the protection of state militias, it is hard to imagine that they would have chosen the language they did. We therefore take it as an expression of the drafters’ view that the people possessed a natural right to keep and bear arms, and that the preservation of the militia was the right’s most salient political benefit?and thus the most appropriate to express in a political document.”

Silberman said in his opinion, however, the Second Amendment is still “subject to the same sort of reasonable restrictions that have been recognized as limiting, for instance, the First Amendment,” including gun registration, firearms testing and restrictions on ownership for criminals or the mentally ill.

The decision overturns a 2004 ruling by a lower-court judge who told six D.C. residents – seeking to be armed for protection – they did not have a constitutional right to own handguns.

In dissent of today’s decision, Judge Karen Henderson wrote the Second Amendment does not apply to D.C. because it is not a state.

If the case is appealed to the Supreme Court, it would be the first in nearly 70 years to address the scope of the Second Amendment.

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