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Historic Decision Renews Old Debate

David Kennedy, a Stanford University historian, described the attachment to firearms as a reflection of the deep strain of individualism that is part of the nation's cultural identity, linked to a suspicion of authority, power and strong central governments. It has manifested itself in a powerful movement to protect Second Amendment rights.

But with urbanization came a backlash against the unfettered availability of guns, and the modern gun-control movement gained force after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. After each horrifying incident of gun violence, now evoked by names such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, advocates of gun control have called for further restrictions.

But the passion has largely come from their opponents on the right, led by organizations such as the NRA. Democrats have lamented their inability to win more votes in rural America, and particularly in parts of the West and the South, and many have tried to calibrate their positions on guns to make themselves more acceptable to voters in those regions.

Obama, who has advocated strict gun-control laws and who spoke favorably about the District's handgun ban before yesterday's ruling, said in a statement afterward: "I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view."

McCain applauded the decision and chastised Obama for not signing a bipartisan amicus brief calling for the court to strike down the ban. "This ruling does not mark the end of our struggle against those who seek to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens," he said in a statement. "We must always remain vigilant in defense of our freedoms."

Some Democratic strategists saw yesterday's ruling as one that will deprive conservatives of one of their most extreme arguments -- that Democrats are trying to take away all guns. "Whatever you believe about the merits of the decision, it's a decision that protects Democrats from the charge that they want to ban all guns, because the Supreme Court has said you can't do that," said pollster Geoffrey Garin.

Mark Mellman, another Democratic pollster, predicted that the decision will energize those on the left who favor some restrictions and who may see the ruling as a step toward wiping more away. "The decision might actually allow the supporters of gun control to get back into the conversation in a way they haven't been for quite some time," he said.

"We've cleared the way to talk about the real issues," said John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. "It concludes the debate and lets us focus on what's clearly important."

Meanwhile, Republican strategists saw political advantages for conservatives from the ruling. "What it really creates is uncertainty," said consultant Alex Castellanos. "I think a lot of people who are concerned about the Second Amendment, like the NRA, will look at the 5-4 decision and say, 'We barely hung on to the right to bear arms.' This is going to motivate Republicans to vote."

Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster, said the ruling could help McCain in Western battleground states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, where there is strong support for Second Amendment rights. But Democrats said McCain could face new problems among suburban women in other battlegrounds.

Several analysts noted that the court found a balance about where public opinion rests: backing the right to own guns but also supporting some restrictions. "The ruling has taken away the two extremes of the debate," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "This has been a wedge issue for years, and I think they've taken away the wedge."

But while the ruling could usher in a less contentious debate, the recent history of gun politics suggests that it may take time.

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