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Second Amendment Sniping:

Linda Greenhouse reports on the "sniping" within the Administration over the Solicitor General's brief in D.C. v. Heller.

Mr. Clement's brief embraces the individual-rights position, which has been administration policy since 2001 when John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, first declared it in a public letter to the National Rifle Association. But the brief does not take the next step and ask the justices to declare, as the federal appeals court here did a year ago, that the District of Columbia law is unconstitutional.

Not that the solicitor general's brief finds the law to be constitutional, or even desirable. Far from it: the brief offers a road map for finding the law unconstitutional, but by a different route from the one the appeals court took. The distinction may seem almost picayune, but it is a measure of the passions engendered by anything to do with guns that Mr. Clement's approach is evidently being seen in some administration circles as close to a betrayal.

The brief argues that in striking down the District of Columbia's law, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit took too "categorical" an approach, one that threatens the constitutionality of federal gun laws, like the current ban on machine guns. Mr. Clement asks the justices to vacate the decision and send the case back to the appeals court for a more nuanced appraisal of the issue.

This was a fairly standard performance for a solicitor general, who has a statutory obligation to defend acts of Congress. It is routine for any solicitor general to try to steer the court away from deciding cases in a way that could harm federal interests in future cases.

But Vice President Dick Cheney was nonetheless so provoked by Mr. Clement's approach that last month he took the highly unusual step for a vice president of signing on to a brief filed by more than 300 members of Congress that asks the Supreme Court to declare the District of Columbia law "unconstitutional per se."

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