WASHINGTON - Reversing a position it adopted
nearly 30 years ago, the Justice Department is preparing a
formal legal opinion that individuals, not just groups, have a
constitutional right to own guns, a view advocated by Attorney
General John Ashcroft, officials said on Wednesday.
They said the department's office of legal counsel was
drafting the opinion, which would be a shift from the position
it took in 1973 under Republican President Richard Nixon that
there was no personal constitutional right to own or use a
The letter, denounced by gun-control groups, represented a
break from the government's prior position that the Second
Amendment only conferred a collective right to own guns through
militias, and not an individual right.
Sarah Brady, chairman of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun
Violence accused Ashcroft of ``jettisoning'' a long-standing U.S.
government position to replace it with the ``discredited
interpretation held by the gun lobby.''
``His position is also dangerous, as it would only make
defending reasonable gun laws -- laws that Americans
overwhelmingly support -- more difficult,'' she said.
The opinion will incorporate the views Ashcroft first
expressed in a letter to the National Rifle Association in May.
The officials said Ashcroft, an NRA member, expressed official
Justice Department policy in the letter, not his personal
In another move applauded by the NRA, Ashcroft last month
announced plans to slash the amount of time the government can
keep records of instant background checks for gun buyers.
One official said the Justice Department would continue to
defend existing gun laws in court, even after the opinion had
In his letter, Ashcroft said the Second Amendment did not
prohibit Congress from enacting laws restricting firearms
ownership for ``compelling state interests.''
The issue of whether the Second Amendment applies to
individuals is before a federal appeals court based in New
Orleans, and the case could then be appealed to the U.S.
The Second Amendment says, ``A well-regulated militia, being
necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the
people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.''
Seth Waxman, solicitor general under Democratic President
Bill Clinton, said in a letter nearly a year ago that
successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the
Supreme Court in 1939 and eight U.S. appeals courts had
rejected arguments the Second Amendment extended firearms
rights to individuals.
Copyright © 2001 Reuters Limited