A pair of gun-rights organizations have sent petitions containing thousands of signatures to Attorney General John Ashcroft in a bid to “restore the free exercise of the Second Amendment in all states” but especially California.

“We intend to use this petition to hammer away at Mr. Ashcroft and (President) Bush, for the next two-and-one-half years if necessary, until they treat the Second Amendment the way they say it should be treated, the way the Constitution demands it be treated – just like the First Amendment,” said Brian Puckett, founder and chairman of the California-based group Citizens of America.

“If any state attempted to pass laws banning freedom of speech or free exercise of religion or freedom of the press, the government would come down on them instantly,” he said.

The petition seeks to capitalize on statements made by Ashcroft last year in a letter to the National Rifle Association reaffirming the Constitution’s language that the “right to keep and bear arms,” as outlined by the Second Amendment, is an individual right.

“On many occasions the U.S. Justice Department has sent teams of lawyers to force states, municipalities, agencies, and officials to obey civil rights statutes, resulting in laws being overturned and in legal actions against individuals,” said a statement from Keep and Bear Arms, a national gun-rights group based in Arizona.

“Now that we have an attorney general who has stated unequivocally that Americans have an individual right to own and use firearms, we intend to see his office used to enforce that right,” the statement said. “We have charged the state of California with violating our Second Amendment rights … . Our list of violations, in petition form, is intended to force a ruling on all aspects of the Second Amendment.”

Gun rights supporters also point to a recent federal appeals court ruling as evidence that the Second Amendment is an individual right. In October 2001, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the arguments made by the Clinton administration that the right to keep and bear arms was a collective – not individual – right.

“There is no evidence in the text of the Second Amendment, or any other part of the Constitution, that the words ‘the people’ have a different connotation within the Second Amendment than when employed elsewhere in the Constitution,” the appeals panel wrote in remanding the case back to U.S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings.

“In fact, the text of the Constitution, as a whole, strongly suggests that the words ‘the people’ have precisely the same meaning within the Second Amendment as without,” said the panel. “We conclude … that (previous Supreme Court cases) do not support the government’s collective rights or sophisticated collective rights approach to the Second Amendment.”

That case centered around Dr. Timothy Joe Emerson of Texas, who claimed his arrest while under a restraining order from his estranged wife was unconstitutional. Emerson was charged with a violation of federal statutes prohibiting a person under such an order from possessing a firearm.

In his March 30, 1999 ruling, Cummings agreed that Emerson’s Second Amendment right had been violated; under federal and most state statutes, persons named in restraining orders are forbidden from gun possession and ownership, even though – as Cummings noted – they had not yet been convicted of any crime.

Though the focus of the petition is the state of California – which has some of the most oppressive gun control laws in the country – organizers say all Americans should be concerned by its outcome.

“We’re not from Manhattan, but an attack there affects us all,” said a Keep and Bear Arms questionnaire. “Likewise, the denial of constitutional rights in one part of America should rightly outrage all Americans. If the attorney general can establish precedent in California, it will apply nationwide, and can be used to overturn oppressive and unconstitutional ‘laws'” in other states.

Petition organizers also made an effort to quash what they believe was an NRA-initiated report that the focus of the petition effort is just to collect names and personal information.

“The last thing I am seeking is a public airing of differences with NRA,” said gun rights activist David Codrea, in a Dec. 6, 2001, letter to James Jay Baker, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “But I cannot allow public disparagements and personal attacks to stand unchallenged.”

So far, petition organizers say, the NRA has been non-committal on a pledge to assist the groups in their bid to get more signatures, though both groups say the NRA has been approached about lending a hand.

NRA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Codrea, in his letter, pointed out that other gun rights advocates – including Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, Guns & Ammo magazine, and Gun Owners of America – have lent support to the petition effort.

“Clearly, this has become a movement of national significance for gun owners,” Codrea said. “Why would NRA oppose asking the attorney general to use his power of office to halt unconstitutional infringements of our right to keep and bear arms?”

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