ATLANTA - You may remember that during the presidential campaign, an official of the National Rifle Association boasted that if George W. Bush were elected the NRA could, in effect, set up shop right in the Oval Office.
Well, it is coming close.
To the delight of the NRA but to little broad public notice, Attorney General John Ashcroft has thrown over the traditional understanding of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms in favor of an interpretation pushed in recent years by conservative legal commentators and activists.
Since 1939, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could ban sawed-off shotguns, both case law and political consensus have held that gun ownership is not primarily an individual right.
Not only the Supreme Court but eight federal appellate courts have found that the right is essentially collective, taking the amendment at its word in linking arms ownership to the need for states to maintain "a well regulated militia." Now, in one of those little hypocrisies of convenience that dot our politics, folks who otherwise declare themselves "strict constructionists" in constitutional interpretation argue that the apparently plain language of the Second Amendment actually imbeds a right for just about everyone to buy and carry more or less whatever weapons manufacturers can come up with - automatics, armor-piercing, you name it. And let the bodies fall where they may.
That's the position the nation's top legal officer endorsed in a May 17 letter to the executive director of the National Rifle Association.
Mr. Ashcroft said in a footnote to his letter that, despite his reading of it, the amendment doesn't bar Congress from "restricting firearms ownership for compelling state reasons."
Mr. Ashcroft's reassurance is not very reassuring.
The NRA has not ruled out challenges, based on Mr. Ashcroft's position, to existing gun control laws.
A federal appellate court in Texas is reviewing a District Court decision throwing out the law that bars gun ownership to people subject to restraining orders. Given that the district judge based his ruling on Mr. Ashcroft's similar belief that gun ownership is basically a personal right, will the Justice Department vigorously contest that scary finding?
And the attorney general has twice delayed implementation of a Clinton administration rule that would allow the FBI to keep records for 90 days from the background checks it conducts to enforce the Brady law. The bureau needs the time to audit the system that prevents gun sales to disqualified buyers and to double-check the performance of dealers.
The gun lobby has wanted the records immediately purged, a position Mr. Ashcroft supported when he was a senator. Now, the Violence Policy Center is going to court in hopes of forcing the Justice Department to carry out the regulation.
Maybe the NRA can skip a White House office if it turns out that it has an annex in the Justice Department.
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.