Guns are easily bought in many parts of the US [Reuters]

The US supreme court is hearing a legal challenge to Washington DC's restrictions on gun ownership, the first time in almost 70 years the court has judged whether citizens have the right to keep and bear arms.
 
The plaintiff is challenging the federal capital's ban on the private ownership of handguns, and restrictions on the use of other guns.
 
Dick Anthony Heller says he lives in a high-crime area and wants a handgun for self-defence.
 
The court's ruling, expected by the end of June, could have a major impact in the US, which is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate, and could also influence November's poll.
 
Protesters gather
 
Dozens of protesters from groups who both support and oppose and changes to the law gathered outside the court while Tuesday's hearing took place.
 
Members of one group chanted "guns kill'' as followers of another shouted "more guns, less crime.''
 
The supreme court has not ruled on the interpretation of the second amendment to the US constitution since 1939, which states:
 
"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."
 
Government split
 
Heller argues that the DC gun ban, which also requires that rifles or shotguns must be kept in homes disassembled or with their triggers locked, violates that amendment.
 
But city officials say the ban, introduced in 1976, is necessary to keep violence and murder rates down, and that the second amendment only protects gun rights for people associated with militias, not individuals.
 
Adrian Fenty, Washington DC's mayor, said earlier this month: "I'm confident in our case, and our continued ability to protect residents from gun violence."
 
However, Alan Gura, the leading lawyer for the plaintiff, questioned the impact on the crime-rate of the city's laws, saying they have "accomplished nothing except to prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms."
 
The case has also split the Bush administration.
 
The department of justice has backed the mayor's position, while Dick Cheney, the vice-president, has joined a group of US parliamentarians in urging the court to adopt a stronger stand in favour of gun rights.
 
The arguments follow a series of mass shootings in the past year - multiple killings on at least three college campuses, two shopping centre and one Missouri town meeting.
 
On average 80 people die from gunshots every day in the US, 34 of them homicides, according to government data.

Source: Agencies