By James Vicini and Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared likely to extend the federal right to own guns to state and local governments, but some justices said firearms still could face regulations and restrictions.
In a legal challenge to Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban, the high court seemed deeply divided along conservative and liberal lines in considering how broadly to extend its landmark 2008 ruling that individual Americans have a federal right to own guns to all the states and cities.
Gun rights cases have been among the country's most divisive social, political and legal issues. Some 90 million people in the United States have an estimated 200 million guns, according to a study cited in the case.
During arguments in one of the court's most important cases this term, the justices vigorously questioned lawyers on both sides on the reach of gun rights and whether it extended beyond keeping a handgun in a home for self-defense.
The justices also seemed to suggest a total handgun ban might be struck down because the right to bear arms was written in the U.S. Constitution, but that reasonable firearm regulations would be allowed.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote, said other rights in the Bill of Rights have been applied to the states in such a way to still allow substantial latitude in adopting reasonable regulations.
"Why can't we do the same thing with firearms?" Kennedy asked the lawyer for the city of Chicago who defended a strict gun control law that bans handgun ownership in most cases.
Gun control advocates have urged the Supreme Court to adopt a test that would allow for gun regulations if the laws were a reasonable exercise of state or local power to protect public safety.
The Supreme Court gave no clear indication of how broadly it would rule in its decision expected by the end of June.
Alan Gura, an attorney representing four Chicago-area residents and two gun rights groups, argued the individual right to own guns, which was found in the 2008 ruling on the Second Amendment, also extended to states and cities.
But liberal justices questioned the scope of the right.
RIGHT TO CARRY GUNS IN THE STREETS?
Justice John Paul Stevens asked if it applied only in the home or if an individual had the right carry guns in the streets.
Justice Stephen Breyer asked Gura how to decide such a case that that pitted the city saying its law saves hundreds of lives every year and the other side disputing that.
Paul Clement, the Bush administration's solicitor general, represented the politically powerful National Rifle Association and argued it would be easier if the same rules applied to the federal government and the states.
James Feldman, a lawyer defending the Chicago law, said firearms are designed to injure and kill and should be subject to state regulation to cut down on violent crimes like murder, suicides and accidental deaths.
The city came "up with something within our traditions," he argued. Gura retorted that it was "not who has the better statistics."
The conservative justices rejected Feldman's argument.
"It's either there or not," Justice Antonin Scalia said of the right to keep firearms.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the court could hold the right to own a firearm applied to states and cities, but that it still would be subject to the political process which could allow some regulation or restrictions.
In its 2008 ruling, the court said gun rights were limited. It said the decision did not cast doubt on prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, on laws forbidding firearms in places like schools and government buildings and on laws imposing conditions on gun sales.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)