The nine justices have said almost nothing about gun rights, and their predecessors have likewise given no definitive answer to whether the Constitution protects an individual's right to own guns or whether that right is somehow tied to service in a state militia.
The case that will be argued Tuesday is among the most closely watched of the term, drawing 68 briefs from outside groups. Most of those support an individual's right to own a gun.
"This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to interpret an important provision of our Constitution unencumbered by precedent," said Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett.
Even if they determine there is an individual right, the justices still will have to decide whether the capital's 32-year-old handgun ban can stand and how to evaluate other gun control laws. This issue has caused division within the Bush administration, with Vice President Dick Cheney taking a harder line than the administration's official position at the court.