By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the constitutional right of individuals to own firearms trumps state and local laws, reviving the legal battle over gun rights in America.
The high court said on Wednesday it agreed to decide the reach of its landmark ruling last year that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed an individual right to own guns and use them for lawful purposes like self-defense in the home.
Gun rights cases have been among the country's most divisive social, political and legal issues. The Supreme Court split, in a 5-4 vote, between the conservative and liberal factions, in the 2008 ruling.
The court last year prohibited the federal government from imposing certain restrictions, but it left unclear whether the right also applied to state and local gun control laws.
The Supreme Court said in a brief order it would settle that question by ruling in a dispute over a strict gun control law in Chicago.
It immediately became one of the most important issues to be decided during the court's new term that begins next week.
The justices are expected to hear arguments early next year with a decision likely by late June.
The United States is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate. Gun deaths average about 80 a day, 34 of them homicides, according to U.S. government statistics.
The Supreme Court agreed to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that upheld a strict gun control law in Chicago that bans the ownership of handguns in most cases.
Gun control advocates said the Supreme Court's decision was expected. "The Chicago case is unlikely to have much practical impact on most gun laws regardless of how the court rules," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
UNLIKELY TO CHANGE
He said the court was unlikely to change the crucial holding in last year's ruling that reasonable gun laws are likely to be upheld and that the constitutional right was narrowly limited to guns in the home for self-defense.
The appeal challenging the Chicago law was filed by individuals and gun rights groups.
The Supreme Court took no action on a separate appeal by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and others in the Chicago case who argued that the right to bear arms trumped laws that ban the possession of handguns in the home.
Over the past year, the issue of state and local restrictions has divided U.S. appeals courts around the country.
It also surfaced at the Senate confirmation hearing in July on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice.
Sotomayor, who won Senate approval last month, said at the hearing that she would keep an open mind on the issue.
As a U.S. appeals court judge in New York, she was part of a panel that held that the right to keep and bear arms only prohibited the federal government from imposing restrictions.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)