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Justice Department Reverses Gun Rights Position
Published on Wednesday, July 11, 2001 by Reuters
George W. Bush's America
Justice Department Reverses Gun Rights Position
 
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 gun.

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 views.

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 been completed.

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. Supreme Court.

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

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