WASHINGTON — Deep inside Washington’s police headquarters is a library like few others, with floor-to-ceiling racks displaying 1,700 guns, including a World War II-era rifle with bayonet and rows of pocket-size revolvers, automatic pistols and big six-shooters that look straight out of the Wild West.
Most of the guns, used now for forensic research, were seized during crimes under a 31-year-old law in the nation’s capital that bars handgun ownership for nearly everyone except law enforcement — a measure police have praised as a valuable tool against violence.
But that ban is now in jeopardy. The law was struck down by a federal appeals court this year, and now the District of Columbia is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in. Both sides of the gun debate are apprehensive.
The case represents the first time a federal appeals court struck down a gun-control law on the grounds that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to own guns. Up to now, courts have generally interpreted the amendment to protect only the collective right of states to maintain militias.
If it takes the case, the high court could issue its first direct ruling on the Second Amendment in 70 years, solidifying some of the nation’s toughest gun laws or exposing them to a torrent of new challenges.
“It will be the biggest ruling on the Second Amendment ever,” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “You get nervous when you see something with far-reaching implications.”
Even the National Rifle Association, which believes it might have an advantage with a conservative-leaning high court, is uneasy.
“I’d rather be on our side than on their side, given the chances, but there is always a ‘but,’ ” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.
Lawyers for the city and the plaintiffs, who are backed by the libertarian Cato Institute, say they believe the court will break its long silence on gun rights. D.C. officials say they expect to learn by early November whether the Supreme Court will take the case.
Passed in 1976, Washington, D.C.’s gun law is one of the nation’s toughest firearms regulations. In addition to barring private handgun ownership, it requires D.C. residents to keep shotguns and rifles unloaded and disassembled or fitted with trigger locks.
Critics say the law has done little to curb violence, mainly because guns obtained legally from outside D.C. or through illegal means are still readily available.
Although the city’s homicide rate has declined dramatically since its peak in the early 1990s, it still ranks among the nation’s highest, with 169 killings in 2006.
Last year, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department seized 2,656 guns, up 13 percent from 2005. Many of the guns flowed in from surrounding states such as Maryland and Virginia.
Linda Singer, the district’s attorney general, said public safety is the main reason the city decided to take the case to the Supreme Court. Without the law, the city’s homicide rate would probably be higher, she said.
“More guns leads to more gun violence,” she said.
The Second Amendment reads: “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 March, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the city’s gun law in a 2-1 decision, saying it violated residents’ Second Amendment rights. Washington appealed to the Supreme Court in September.
Some cities and states with tough gun laws are getting nervous about D.C.’s appeal. During the lower court proceedings, Washington had the backing of several jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, Maryland and Chicago. But fearing they could lose — and lose big — at the Supreme Court, few have publicly backed the city or filed briefs in support of its appeal.