The Bush administration has signaled a major policy shift on how it views the rights of Americans to own guns. Gun rights advocates are cheering the decision while gun control advocates are vowing to fight it.
A top Justice Department official told the Supreme Court this week that the Bush administration believes that the U.S. Constitution broadly protects the rights of individual Americans to own firearms.
That new view reverses decades of official government policy that held that the Second Amendment to the Constitution only applied to protecting the collective rights of the states to organize, maintain and arm militias.
Most Americans believe the Second Amendment guarantees their right to own firearms. But constitutional scholars have long debated its meaning because it mentions "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" in the context of a "well regulated militia."
The Supreme Court took the more narrow view when it last ruled on the meaning of the Second Amendment in 1939. The Bush administration's change of policy was asserted in written briefs submitted to the Supreme Court concerning two gun cases that the court may have to rule on in the near future.
Gun rights supporters welcomed the administration's policy shift. This is Democratic Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia. "I'd like to say that I am very pleased that the Bush administration and the attorney general in this federal case are taking the position that the Second Amendment applies to the right of the individual to keep and bear arms," he said.
But gun control advocates were quick to denounce the policy change and vowed to force Attorney General John Ashcroft and other administration officials to defend the shift before Congress.
"When it comes to guns, this is the biggest policy shift we have seen in decades," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a leading gun control supporter in Congress. "It could undermine hundreds of state and local laws that have drastically reduced gun violence and saved countless lives."
Pro-gun supporters say the administration's broader interpretation of the Second Amendment is the latest example of a shift in momentum on the gun debate in their favor since last September's terrorist attacks.
"I think that since September 11, people have become more aware of the firearms issue and the fact that they have become more aware of it, they realize that self-defense lies with the individual," said James Fotis, Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.
But gun control supporters take issue with the notion that the September 11 attacks have helped the pro-gun lobby. Senator Schumer says while most Americans believe in the right to own firearms, they also support restrictions to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. He blames the influential National Rifle Association (NRA) for polarizing the gun control debate:
"And the problem is that the NRA has been so extreme. Their actual credo is that if you want to buy a machine gun or a bazooka, you should be able to do it without any check," he said. "They are way off the deep end. They still are after September 11."
Senator Schumer has written to Attorney General Ashcroft demanding an explanation for the policy change and says he will push to hold congressional hearings on the issue.