July 11, 2001 -- Attorney General John Ashcroft lobbed a bombshell May 17 when he wrote the National Rifle Association and said the Constitution's Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms.
Now, the Justice Department is working on making the newly stated view official policy, department officials said.
Ashcroft's declaration heralds a change in the government's traditional interpretation of the Second Amendment and signals a big victory for the NRA.
Federal courts generally have ruled that the Second Amendment protects the rights of states to have armed militias — but provides no such right to individuals. That has been the policy of the Justice Department legal counsel since the Nixon administration put it into effect in 1973.
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."
"It's an extremely important development," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "This is the first time the attorney general of the United States has reached this conclusion."
The Supreme Court established the current court interpretation in 1939. Since then, eight U.S. appeals courts have rejected arguments that the Second Amendment extended firearms rights to individuals.
Position Will Be Tested in Court
Emboldened by the changing policy, the NRA told ABCNEWS it will bring new test cases to the courts, challenging first the District of Columbia's strict law forbidding handguns.
"I think it's a great test case for this. When we take a case to the Supreme Court, I think we're going to win it," said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
The issue of whether the Second Amendment applies to individuals also is before a federal appeals court based in New Orleans. The case could eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Alarmed gun control lobbyists have filed an ethics complaint against Ashcroft, who is an NRA member, charging he has undermined the official U.S. position in the courts. They note his promise in his confirmation hearings to uphold the law.
"It is just naive to say the attorney general of the United States expressing a personal view does not have an effect on the operation and implementation of the laws of this land," says Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause.
For his part, Ashcroft says some gun laws are needed. A convicted felon, for instance, should not have the right to own a gun, he says.
And in his letter to the NRA, Ashcroft did write the Second Amendment did not prohibit Congress from enacting laws restricting firearms ownership for "compelling state interests."
Both sides in the gun control battle will be watching closely to see which gun laws he does find unconstitutional, and whether they will be vigorously enforced.
ABCNEWS' John Cochran and Reuters contributed to this report.