- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft has reversed a Clinton administration policy on the Second Amendment, saying the Justice Department has "reaffirmed a long-held opinion" that all law-abiding citizens have the individual right to keep and bear firearms.
In a decision likely to inflame liberals and anti-gun lobbies, Mr. Ashcroft said in a letter last week to the National Rifle Association that the Justice Department has taken the position that the amendment "protects the private ownership of firearms for lawful purposes."
The Clinton Justice Department, under Attorney General Janet Reno, maintained that the Second Amendment guaranteed only the "collective" right of the states to maintain militias.
Solicitor General Seth Waxman, a Clinton appointee, even argued in a 1994 court case involving a Texas man that the amendment "does not extend an individual right to keep and bear arms." A federal judge later disagreed with the governments Second Amendment arguments and dismissed the case.
"As I was reminded during my confirmation hearing, some hold a different view and would, in effect, read the Second Amendment out of the Constitution," Mr. Ashcroft said in the letter Thursday to NRA Executive Director James Jay Baker. "I must respectfully disagree with this view, for when I was sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
"That responsibility applies to all parts of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment," he said.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. Ashcroft argued that "the text and the original intent of the Second Amendment clearly protects the right of individuals to keep and bear firearms" and that early Supreme Court decisions "routinely" reaffirmed that position.
Mark Levin, former chief of staff to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, praised the Ashcroft decision. He said the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to "protect the liberty of individuals and groups of individuals against the power of the central government."
"The right to bear arms is no less of a right than the right of free speech," he said. "The problem with liberals is that they wish to pick and chose between individual liberties and scuttle those with which they dont agree. John Ashcrofts decision is in the finest tradition of James Madison."
Mr. Ashcroft has long been a supporter of a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and Justice Department officials noted yesterday that attorneys general of both parties have taken similar positions, dating back to 1934 when Homer Cummings testified before Congress that the first federal gun-control statute was unconstitutional.
The officials said the current Justice Department position was not partisan, noting that the view of the Second Amendment was shared by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and noted liberal constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.
Mr. Ashcroft wrote in response to a letter from the NRAs Mr. Baker about the attorney generals and the Justice Departments views of the Second Amendment.
"We would respectfully like to enquire as to your view and that of the current Department of Justice on the nature of the Second Amendment, specifically whether it guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms," Mr. Baker wrote. He told reporters last night it was "clear" from Mr. Ashcrofts letter that the "Bush administration respects the individual right embodied in the Second Amendment."
The NRA supported Mr. Bush in the 2000 election, spending more than $1 million on behalf of his campaign. Mr. Baker noted last night, however, that the NRA has always asked new attorneys general for their view on the Second Amendment.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker described the Ashcroft letter as a reflection of the attorney generals support of the right to own firearms.
"It was simply him stating a position of the Justice Department, which is consistent with that of past administrations, both Republican and Democrat," she said.
A coalition of liberal groups sought to defeat the Ashcroft nomination. More than 200 organizations, ranging from the Sierra Club to homosexual rights groups to the gun-control lobby, banded together to challenge Mr. Ashcrofts appointment.
At one point, former Rep. Mike Barnes, head of Handgun Control Inc., charged that Mr. Ashcroft shared the "same extremist theory on the Second Amendment subscribed to by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and so-called militia groups." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, laid into the former Missouri senators strong support of the Second Amendment, demanding that he "apologize" to the American people.
Mr. Ashcroft has vigorously supported increased enforcement of existing gun laws. The Justice Departments $24.6 billion budget for fiscal 2002 is aimed at reducing gun crime, and such other goals as stopping violence against women, combating drugs and guaranteeing the rights of all citizens.
The attorney general also has said that the new fiscal budget contains $158 million in increased funding to enforce gun laws through increased prosecutions and through collaborative approaches to crimes committed with firearms.


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