Anti-Gun Groups File Complaint Against Ashcroft

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Common Cause on Tuesday filed an "ethics complaint" against Attorney General John Ashcroft for allegedly violating "his ethical obligations to his client, the United States" by sending a letter to the National Rifle Association in favor of the Second Amendment.

The groups think Ashcroft's letter "directly contradicts" the arguments made in a legal brief filed by the Justice Department in a case entitled "United States v. Emerson."

Back in 1999, Timothy Joe Emerson, a Texas doctor, was arrested and accused of brandishing a shotgun in front of his wife and their daughter. He was charged with violating a 1994 federal law that prohibits someone under a restraining order from owning a gun.

Texas Federal Judge Sam Cummings later dismissed the charges, declaring the 1994 law as unconstitutional based on "historical examination of the right to bear arms, from English antecedents to the drafting of the Second Amendment."

Cummings also said the right to bear arms is a protected individual right and not just a right belonging to a militia, as federal prosecutors had argued.

Some legal scholars at the time of the ruling said it was the first decision in which a judge specifically called a law unconstitutional because it infringed on an individual's Second Amendment rights. The 1994 law was part of the Violence Against Women Act.

Ashcroft sent the letter to James Jay Baker of the NRA, and it was publicly read during the NRA annual convention in Kansas City last May. The NRA filed a legal brief in support of Emerson.

The groups think Ashcroft should "put aside his personal views and uphold the nation's gun laws."

"We believe that Attorney General Ashcroft has blatantly violated numerous ethical guidelines that govern his conduct toward his client, the United States of America," said Michael Barnes, president of the Brady Center.

"Not only did he mislead the Senate and the American people during his confirmation hearings by vowing to defend the nation's gun laws, Mr. Ashcroft has publicly stated he supports the fundamental legal position of the defendant in the case that the United States is prosecuting," Barnes said.

Barnes added, "If the Attorney General had written a similar letter to the defendant's attorneys in the case, there would be no question as to the letter's impropriety. That the letter was sent to an amicus party supporting the defendant makes his statements no less objectionable."

The complaint was filed with the inspector general of the Justice Department, the D.C. Court of Appeals' Board of Professional Responsibility and President Bush's White House counsel. The groups want Ashcroft investigated.

Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause said, "If the Attorney General believes that the Justice Department should change its long-held position on the Second Amendment, the proper place to address that issue is in the federal courts, not in a letter to the NRA."

The NRA had no comment, according to spokesperson Kelly Whitley. The Justice Department did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

The ongoing case is still before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.