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Published: Tuesday, 12/18/2001

The gun-rights exception

High level hypocrisy is on exhibit at the U.S. Justice Department. Attorney General John Ashcroft has made a regular show of initiating and defending tough new measures to crack down on anyone suspected of links to terrorism. He is a man on a mission who will leave no stone unturned and no liberty unchallenged to stop terrorists in their tracks. But, by golly, he'll uphold the gun rights of foreigners, no questions asked.

Interesting. Why are gun rights sacrosanct while others, arguably more compelling, can be summarily compromised for the government's war against terrorism? The attorney general has no problem with everything from pervasive electronic eavesdropping, expanded search and seizure, exposed attorney-client confidentiality, extended detainment of immigrants, military tribunals, and racial profiling of those of Middle Eastern descent. But the right to bear arms is different.

Politics makes it so. Mr. Ashcroft is to the right of Charlton Heston when it comes to gun rights and opposition to government use of background checks of prospective gun buyers. So when the FBI sought an exception to the rule to investigate whether detainees held in the wake of Sept. 11 had bought guns in the United States, a red light went on in the Justice Department.

The rug was pulled on any further investigation of background check records. Period. The FBI was stymied and law enforcement leaders across the country were furious. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the nation's largest group of law enforcement executives, protested Mr. Ashcroft's arbitrary exception to the war on terrorism.

“The decision has no rational basis in public safety,” said Larry Todd, police chief of Los Gatos, Calif., and a member of the association's firearms committee. “It sounds to me like it was made for narrow political reasons based on a right-to-bear-arms mentality. If someone is under investigation for a terrorist act, all the records we have in this country should be checked, including whether they bought firearms.”

Mr. Ashcroft can be glib and inconsistent and unapologetically so because the public has given the government a green light to wage war in any way it sees fit. But the glitch over gun background checks to possibly thwart terrorist schemes has not gone unnoticed by those fighting on the front lines.

They know hypocrisy when they see it.

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