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Sticking to His Guns

The Bush Justice Department was bound to view gun issues in a different light than its predecessor. Attorney General John Ashcroft is a life member of the National Rifle Association and a longtime opponent of gun control.

In his confirmation hearings, however, Mr. Ashcroft assured senators - and the nation - that he'd vigorously enforce existing gun laws. And he has largely lived up to that promise, boosting manpower devoted to gun-law enforcement.

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At the same time, the attorney general has not tried to hide his ardently pro-gun rights philosophy. In May, he sent a letter to the NRA, strongly supporting the view that the Constitution's Second Amendment embodies an individual right to own guns. That view is at odds with the more mainstream interpretation that the amendment asserts a collective right to bear arms as part of a state militia.

Now, reportedly, the interpretation favored by Ashcroft could be enshrined in a formal legal finding by the department's Office of Legal Counsel. Gun-control advocates worry that such a policy stance by the Justice Department could encourage court challenges by the NRA to any law that impinges on an individual's right to a gun, including the Brady background-check statute and restrictions on assault weapon ownership.

But in his letter to the NRA, Ashcroft noted that "compelling" government interests can justify restrictions on the right to bear arms. Such interests certainly include keeping guns away from criminals and unstable individuals - the goal of background-check measures like the Brady law. That goal also underlies efforts to extend such checks to gun shows, such as the bill sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Reasonable gun-control measures, and strong enforcement of them, should be priorities for any Justice Department, regardless of its chief's stance on the Second Amendment. The attorney general should be expected to honor his commitment to enforce gun laws - and not join forces with those who'd like to dismantle them. The public deserves no less.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor