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Mary McGrory

Lock-and-Load Ashcroft

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, May 19, 2002; Page B07

Various people have various ideas about what the country needs most. Seniors think it's prescription drug benefits; the young are for more liberal college loans. But our attorney general, John Ashcroft, has the most novel: He thinks what this country needs is more guns. Already there are 200 million guns in circulation within our borders. Does this number help to explain why we have between 20,000 and 30,000 gun deaths a year?

Ashcroft does not connect the dots, as we say all the time now. Ashcroft is passionate about guns, and although he promised the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearings that he would set aside his personal feelings, his passion has become a policy. The attorney general thinks that any American who wants a gun should have one. He's gone to the Second Amendment of the Constitution for ammunition.

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While 60 years of court opinion have held that the Founders intended to extend a collective privilege for militias -- after all, they were doing their drafting while the redcoats were still coming in memory -- Ashcroft told the National Rifle Association in a letter of a year ago: "Let me state unequivocally my view that the text and original intention of the Second Amendment clearly protects the right of individuals to keep and bear arms."

It is somewhat embarrassing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is a gun nut, but it is more than that. Dennis Henigan of the Brady Center to Prevent Violence warns that felons arrested for gun possession will claim the alibi Ashcroft has provided them: the right to keep and bear arms.

Lawyers for John Walker Lindh have asked that gun-bearing charges against their pro-Taliban client be dropped under Ashcroft's second thoughts about the Second Amendment. Ashcroft's intervention in the Lindh case illustrates how he sees his role. He feels he was chosen to be a temporary Grand Inquisitor sniffing out heresy -- which to him means any resistance to Baptist fundamental doctrine -- in all corners of the country.

Lindh, the Marin County youth who obsessed about Islam, brought all the attorney general's aggressions into full play. With reckless disregard for the inappropriateness of attempting to influence a trial outcome, he declared he was still hoping for the death penalty, another of his enthusiasms.

Gun control, once considered a winner by Democrats, has fallen on hard times. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) recently made a much-remarked speech to the NRA in which he declared that Democrats had lost in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia on guns -- and would again. In support of universal armament, he quoted John F. Kennedy -- who was talking about war -- the most conspicuous victim of gun violence in our generation.

Gun control has always been a hard sell on Capitol Hill. Even at the height of the agony and shame over Columbine, Vice President Al Gore had to break a tie over gun-show checks. A new gun-show bill from Joe Lieberman and John McCain is coming up.

A new group called Americans for Gun Safety (AGS), funded by billionaire Andrew McKelvey and headed by John Cowan, formerly of HUD, is vigorously backing the check. Cowan says his group's premise is that there is nothing to be done about the 200 million guns already here and that Democrats should learn to love gun-owners -- who have been brainwashed by the NRA to think a handgun ban would mean the confiscation of their hunting rifles. No one seems able to convince them that even the mouthiest Massachusetts liberal has no designs on long guns. AGS says it's a battle that can't be won.

Leadership on guns may be passing from Democrats to doctors. Nine thousand U.S. medics have formed a coalition to fight guns as a health hazard. Their leader, Dr. Jeremiah Barondess of New York, was shown on "Sixty Minutes" asking patients about guns in their homes. A counter-group of 900 physicians rages that the questions are intrusive and based on a political agenda unbecoming a doctor.

Ashcroft's attempt to take the Second Amendment to the Supreme Court may not come about before the election in November. But his full-throated support for a gun for everyone could be an issue in the campaign, aggravating the kind of gun- shyness exhibited by Tom Strickland, a Democratic Senate candidate in Colorado, who, after Columbine, made fiery statements about guns but this year is saying, "We don't need any more gun control."

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, a gun-control stalwart who retains his convictions, says of the Ashcroft initiative: "I don't think it will make the country safer."

A line from Army Lt. Col. Patrick L. Fetterman comes to mind. He's trying to root out rocket-launching terrorists from the mountains in Afghanistan, and he complained to The Post's Peter Baker that "Everybody in this [expletive] country has a weapon." That may be true of us soon.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company