The United States Supreme Court last week fired a crippling shot at the efforts of mayors and governors to keep guns off their city streets.

Damaging as it may have been to that cause, it was no bull's-eye. The Court was sharply divided, 5-4, in ruling that all Americans, no matter where they live, have a Second Amendment "right to bear arms," a decision that almost definitely sounds the death knell for the long-standing ban on ownership of handguns in Washington, D.C., and Chicago and then, by extension, ultimately everywhere else.

Actually, the Court merely ordered a lower federal court to "reconsider" its decision upholding the ban in Chicago. Of course, that's tantamount to voiding the ban outright and the gun lobby and National Rifle Association are hailing the development as a major victory.

Indeed, close on the heels of the Supreme Court announcement, shares in Sturm Ruger and Smith & Wesson, Connecticut gun-manufacturers, rose sharply on the stock exchange the following day.

But gun lobby attorneys are advising their clients not to rush out to buy guns yet because the Supreme Court seemed to be saying also that some limitations on gun ownership would be constitutionally permissible. Prevailing wisdom suggests waiting to see how those new regulations will shake out.

The Court's nod to potential limitations perhaps acknowledges the Second Amendment's reference to the need in Colonial America for a "well-regulated militia" in the very same sentence that stipulates the "right to bear arms." Advocates of gun control have emphasized that link, insisting it legitimizes statutes regulating sale, purchase, possession and use of firearms.

So the Supreme Court hasn't exactly shot down any ban on ownership of handguns. It has termed ownership a constitutional right, but it also has recognized the acceptability of clamping limitations on it. The national debate shifts now from whether handguns can be owned to how rigidly can ownership be controlled.

Chicago already is planning a new set of limitations, including a public registry of the names and addresses of handgun-owners, training courses, written examinations to qualify for purchase and other restrictions that might tend to impede purchases and ownership.

At long last, the Supreme Court has validated the constitutionality of gun ownership. In doing so, the Supreme Court may have set the gun control controversy on what in the long run will be a more navigable course. There now will be a series of challenges of existing gun possession laws all over the country, followed by more court appeals over the reasonableness of limitations. Instead of focusing on legality of gun ownership, the redefined debate will direct state and local laws more precisely toward who buys a handgun and how, where and when it can be carried or stored. The gun lobby has argued consistently that guns don't kill people; people kill people. Well, maybe so, but the quick availability of guns in the wrong hands makes it easier for them to do so.

Reframing the debate is tacit recognition that relatively easy access to guns is responsible for much of the destructive violence in American cities. At the same time, banning ownership hasn't really worked. Prohibition failed to stanch the flow of alcohol during the jazz age. Nor is it making appreciable inroads in the drug culture. People will find a way to get something if they want it badly enough. It will be essential then to monitor the sale of guns, including resales by legitimate owners and especially thefts of guns.

It is interesting to note also that of all the constitutional questions constantly before brought before it, the Supreme Court chose to rule on gun ownership. That might be testimony to the strength and influence of the NRA and the gun lobby. It could be the justices paying more attention to a mounting crisis in gun violence. Or it could be attributed to pressure from the strict constructionist conservatives.

At times, the Court has been accused of judicial activism, legislating from the bench as it were, and usurping the function of the elected branch of government. But determining the constitutionality of law is the Court's obligation. What follows that determination and how it is implemented is the duty of the legislature.

Ed Chrostowski can be reached at