With surprising speed, the Bush administration is moving to reshape national gun policy in far-reaching ways that some opponents say could undo years of increasingly restrictive laws governing the sale of firearms.
The administration's aggressive posture, stressing the 2nd Amendment rights of gun owners, has invigorated the well-heeled National Rifle Assn. and thrown gun-control supporters on the defensive.
Although liberals were talking just a few months ago about advancing new gun-control measures, now many are grappling to defend existing weapon laws from attack.
The latest salvo came Wednesday with the release of a report from a gun control group accusing Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft of distorting the judicial and historical record on the 2nd Amendment to bolster his broad interpretation of gun owners' rights.
Today, meanwhile, several prominent Democratic senators will introduce legislation that would nullify the attorney general's efforts to severely shorten the time the FBI can hold on to records on gun purchases.
Ashcroft--featured on the cover of the July issue of the NRA's monthly newsmagazine as a "breath of fresh air to freedom-loving gun owners"--has become the point man in the administration's efforts to fortify gun rights. But the shift in policy extends beyond the Justice Department.
This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development scrapped a $15-million Clinton administration program to buy back guns in and around public housing projects. The buy-back program took about 20,000 guns off the streets in the first year.
Earlier this month, the State Department angered many allies in the United Nations by opposing a plan to restrict the international trafficking of small arms and military-style weapons. The Bush administration, arguing that lawful U.S. gun owners would be harmed, won that fight with the passage of a watered-down U.N. plan.
"If you add up what this administration has done in rapid succession in the last two months, it's very clear that they are beholden to the gun lobby," said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "Whatever the NRA wants, these guys are doing."
Administration officials say they are trying to better enforce gun laws in a way that keeps weapons out of the hands of criminals, while at the same time respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
NRA officials say the organization supports what the administration has done so far.
The Bush administration's recent defense of gun rights "is certainly consistent with the beliefs and values that George W. Bush campaigned on," said NRA spokesman James Ray Baker, adding that the "Chicken Littles" in the gun control community are stirring up alarm and controversy because "their candidate didn't win."
Aides to Ashcroft, a longtime NRA member, said he has not backed away from his pledges during his confirmation hearings to uphold current laws without regard to his personal views.
But Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday that Ashcroft's recent actions have belied those pledges and shown him to be "a faithful friend of the gun lobby."
"Now we have learned, when it comes to Ashcroft and guns, the fox is guarding the henhouse," Conyers said.
Conyers' attack was timed to coincide with the release of a report by the liberal Violence Policy Center that blasted Ashcroft's reading of the 2nd Amendment.
Ashcroft declared in a May 17 letter to the NRA that he believes the Constitution "unequivocally" protects the rights of individuals--not merely militias--to keep and bear arms.
Gun control advocates said the declaration marked a drastic shift from about 60 years of legal precedent, and the Violence Policy Center, in its report Wednesday, charged that Ashcroft's letter was based on "misleading and inaccurate" legal rationale--misquoting Founding Fathers and former attorneys general.
The most blatant problem, the pro-gun control group said, was Ashcroft's failure to mention the standing opinion on the issue from the U.S. Supreme Court: a 1939 decision in United States vs. Miller that the Constitution guarantees militias, not individuals, the right to bear arms.
"It's like reversing course on abortion without even mentioning Roe v. Wade," said Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director for the Violence Police Center and a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. "It's junk science. Ashcroft is a flat-Earther in the world of legal scholarship on this issue."
But Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said that "among legal scholars there are many different views on the 2nd Amendment." Ashcroft's position--that individuals have the constitutionally protected right to bear arms--is solidly grounded in the law and represents the view of the Justice Department, she said.
Just what effect Ashcroft's declaration will have on actual policy and case law is unclear.
In a case now being heard on appeal in New Orleans, a district judge threw out gun charges against a Texan who was arrested for violating federal law by owning a weapon while his wife had a restraining order against him.
The Justice Department continues to oppose the judge's decision, defending the government's power to determine who can own a gun.
Gun control advocates, however, argue that Ashcroft's view of the 2nd Amendment appears at odds with the department's own position in the case. Ashcroft has declined to comment on the case because it is pending before the courts.
The New Orleans case is being closely watched because, if it is upheld, it will reverse the law on what restrictions on gun owners are considered constitutional.
But gun control advocates maintain that if the Justice Department succeeds in broadening the protection of the 2nd Amendment, putting an individual's right to own a gun on par with freedom of religion or speech, it would threaten other gun laws. Regulations requiring background checks on buyers, limiting the number of monthly gun purchases or banning assault weapons could then be thrown out as unconstitutional, some argue.
Matthew Bennett, a spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety in Washington, said that, although the Bush administration's early record on guns has been disappointing, gun control advocates remain hopeful that Congress will pass a long-sought measure to ban the sale of weapons at gun shows without a background check.
Bennett said he thinks Bush would sign the measure because "ultimately, he's going to have to show that he's not a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA."
But Nosanchuk said consideration of a relatively modest proposal such as a gun show measure seems "somewhat beside the point when Rome is burning."
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will introduce a measure today that would ensure that the FBI can hold on to records of gun purchases for at least 90 days to check for fraud and abuse by gun sellers.
The bill is aimed at countering Ashcroft's announcement last month that he wants to have the gun purchase records destroyed within 24 hours to protect the privacy of gun owners.