Guns get a boost

May 12, 2002

IF YOU LOVE guns, then you had to rejoice last week when Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department made two legal filings that embrace the concept of an individual's express right to bear arms.

There are, however, a few problems with that line of thinking. Decades of Justice Department policy have bounced between liberal and conservative interpretations of gun rights, but never have they so nakedly endorsed an armed nation.

What's more, there's case law and the Supreme Court's longstanding opinion on this matter, which tie gun rights to the need for a well-regulated militia. Indeed, even the wording of the Second Amendment itself -- ambiguous, overly parsed and confusing -- cannot reasonably be said to support the Justice Department's extreme interpretation.

Then there's the philosophical contradiction. Mr. Ashcroft is busily making the case for all manner of restrictions on the rights and freedoms of Americans in the name of anti-terrorism. Yet now his department has chosen to support every American's inherent right to have a gun until he or she does something to forfeit that right.

Why is Mr. Ashcroft bothering to do this? It's a position that even the most conservative past administrations saw no need to embrace. And if you think about it, did Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush (who successfully kept the Brady Bill off the books) have any problem pursuing pro-gun agendas without this kind of posturing?

Justice Department officials say there is no plan to slack off on gun law enforcement, and even claim they see no conflict between the new position and any gun law in existence. In fact, in the two cases where the briefs were filed last week, the department was arguing that reasonable restrictions on gun ownership make good sense and pose no constitutional problems.

But in those briefs, the department's references to explicit gun rights also have a rhetorical and political effect, and that may be part of what Mr. Ashcroft is after.

First, the statements resounded nicely with the National Rifle Association, which has long fancied Mr. Ashcroft and his views, and which poured some $300,000 into his Senate campaign in 2000. The organization also cheered the attorney general last fall when he wrote a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys echoing similar feelings.

The filings also inspired a renewed debate over this issue, which helps Republicans keep the hard right happy -- not to be underestimated in an election year.

Beyond that, Mr. Ashcroft may be hoping to influence lower courts to be more skeptical of new gun laws as they are passed. That could ultimately lead to the Supreme Court's revisiting the Second Amendment's meaning, which hasn't happened since 1939.

Whatever his intent, Mr. Ashcroft's efforts are unseemly and close to irresponsible. Remember when he told the Senate that he could keep his personal views from interfering with matters of the law?

That's what the attorney general is supposed to do -- but that paradigm is nowhere to be found in this radical policy shift.

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