Mike Lee probes how far attorney general nominee Merrick Garland might push gun control

Garland says he would advance policy preferences of administration that are consistent with the law.

(Demetrius Freeman | The Washington Post via AP pool) Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judicary Committee, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Sen. Mike Lee once helped block Merrick Garland’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama. On Monday, he probed how far Garland — now nominated as attorney general — might push a gun control agenda under President Joe Biden.

In a confirmation hearing, the Utah Republican told Garland, who has been a federal appeals court judge for 25 years, that as attorney general he would “have a significant impact on policy. So, let’s talk about policy as it relates to the Second Amendment” right to bear arms.

During his campaign, Biden vowed to ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, pushing universal background checks on gun buyers, and holding gun manufacturers liable for misuse of their products. So, Lee asked Garland’s view on each of those.

“As I’m sure you know, the president is a strong supporter of gun control and has been an advocate for all of his life,” Garland told Lee. “The role of the Justice Department is to advance the policy program of the administration as long as it is consistent with the law.”

When Lee asked if Garland supports banning certain types of firearms, he responded, “Where there is room under the law for the president’s policies to be pursued, then I think the president is entitled to pursue them.”

When Lee asked if Garland supports universal background checks, he said he supports checks to allow people legally entitled to buy guns to obtain them — but also to prohibit sales to those “we are concerned about because they’re a threat, because they’re felons, or for whatever reason, [are] barred by the law” from buying them.

When Lee asked if Garland would support holding gun manufacturers liable for injuries or deaths caused by their firearms, the nominee said that while the president may have pushed that, “I have not thought myself deeply about this. I don’t think it raises a Second Amendment issue.”

In a second round of questioning Monday afternoon, Lee asked if Garland agrees with what the senator described as biased comments attributed to Vanita Gupta — nominated to be the assistant attorney general — and Kristen Clarke, the nominee to head the Civil Rights Division.

Lee said Gupta has asserted that any pro-life advocate is unfit for office and that Republicans seek to leave communities “at the mercy of people and institutions drive by hate, bigotry and fear of any threat to the status quo.”

Garland pushed back and said he regards Gupta as “a person of great integrity and a person who is dedicated to the mission of the department.”

After Lee said Clarke had written that blacks are genetically superior to whites and asked if that is relevant to her nomination, the senator also asked Garland, “What about anti-Semitic comments? Would those be relevant” to whether she is fit to serve?

Garland — who is Jewish — interrupted Lee saying, “You know my views about anti-Semitism. No one needs to question those. … I’m a pretty good judge of what an anti-Semite is. And I do not believe that she is an anti-Semite and I do not believe she is discriminatory in any sense.”

Garland added, “I don’t believe that either Vanita or Kristen condone those positions, and I have complete faith in them. … There will not be any discrimination under my watch.”

Lee later tweeted, “I was disappointed that Judge Garland declined to condemn dangerous, radical positions previously taken by fellow DOJ nominees, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke.”

In 2016, Obama nominated Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court — but Republicans then controlled the Senate and refused to hold a confirmation hearing arguing it was too close to the presidential election. Last year, however, Republicans confirmed Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the high court just weeks before the election.

In 2016, Lee said, “In light of the contentious presidential election already well underway, my colleagues and I on the Judiciary Committee have already given our advice and consent on this issue: We will not have any hearings or votes on President Obama’s pick.”

On Monday, several Republicans — but not Lee — openly said they support Merrick for attorney general. Among those supporters were the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. However, Lee had been enough of a supporter of Garland in the past that he once recommended that Trump appoint him to head the FBI.