WASHINGTON -- More than a year ago, when former Sen. John Ashcroft testified at his confirmation hearings to be attorney general, he bent over backward to assure the Senate Judiciary Committee that if he got the job he would put his personal views on such issues as abortion and gun rights behind him and just carry out the laws on the books.
As Mr. Ashcroft put it then, he recognized he would be moving from the "enactment-oriented role" of a legislator to a "law-oriented role" as head of the Justice Department and the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. In that capacity, he suggested in his eagerness to be confirmed, he wouldn't ever try to persuade President Bush to make changes to support those personal views.
The Democrats on the committee, familiar with Mr. Ashcroft's history in the Senate as a vigorous opponent of abortion rights and gun control, were skeptical. One of them, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, professed to see "a kind of metamorphosis going on" before her very eyes. Mr. Ashcroft has now made clear -- in his Justice Department's flat opinion that the Second Amendment's statement of the right to bear arms is an individual right -- that Ms. Feinstein was not seeing things. He remains the same defender of the right of almost every Tom, Dick and Harry to carry a gun who has marched lockstep with the National Rifle Association throughout his political career and is now moving to make it federal policy.
The attorney general, through Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, this week informed the Supreme Court that "the current position of the United States" is that the right to bear arms is not tied to the Colonial-era need for "a well-regulated militia," though it is so specified in the Constitution and so considered in most federal courts ever since the Supreme Court so ruled in 1939.
Last year, Mr. Ashcroft tipped his hand in a letter to the NRA saying he "unequivocally" believed that "the text and the original intent" of the Second Amendment protected individual gun ownership.
Subsequently, after a federal appeals court in Louisiana held that the amendment did protect a defendant's right to own a gun, Mr. Ashcroft called the ruling to the attention of all federal district attorneys. He indicated it should govern their actions in all cases in which gun ownership was an issue.
Mr. Olson this week did tell the Supreme Court the administration believes the individual right to bear arms is "subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal use."
But Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, is not mollified. He asks: "What does the administration regard as reasonable? This raises all kinds of questions."
He says the attorney general's position on guns "tells U.S. attorneys across the country when prosecuting criminals they can no longer use the strongest argument around [previous federal court decisions] in defense of gun laws."
Two specific cases involving gun ownership are up for consideration by the Supreme Court. One involves a man accused of owning a gun while under a restraining order in a domestic violence case. The other is the appeal of a man convicted of owning two outlawed machine guns. Mr. Olson, ironically, has asked the court to reject both cases on grounds they involve the "reasonable restrictions" of which he spoke.
But significant in Mr. Ashcroft's view on the right of individual gun ownership is not so much the substance as his readiness to proclaim it as the administration's new official policy. Doing so is clearly beyond the hands-off role he professed he would play in shaping the policy and philosophy of the Justice Department when he so earnestly lobbied to be its boss.
The senators were sold the Brooklyn Bridge if they really thought John Ashcroft would live up to his promise to become a mere paper-shuffler in the job. As the NRA's man at Justice, he is doing what was expected of him -- by the NRA and, quite probably, by those senators who deplore his views but gave him the job anyway.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.