Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) is mounting a surprise effort to repeal last year's ban on the possession and sale of semiautomatic assault weapons, indicating that he now believes he has the votes to overturn the most sweeping gun-control law ever enacted.
In a recent letter to the National Rifle Assn., Dole vowed to make repeal of "the ill-conceived gun ban" a priority--a turnaround from the GOP leader's unequivocal statement of two months ago that a repeal "would not pass in the Senate."
"The Senate will debate this issue in the near future and I hope to have a bill on President Clinton's desk by this summer," Dole wrote in a March 10 letter to Tanya Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist. "Gun control is a completely ineffective approach to the lack of safety and security in our communities. Disarming law-abiding citizens only places them at the mercy of those who break the law."
Gun-control forces promptly rallied in support of the legislation that outlawed 19 models of assault weapons, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pledging at a news conference Friday to "launch the mother of all filibusters" to save it.
"We won this issue fairly and squarely. We won it because of support of police organizations and the families of victims throughout this nation," said Feinstein, who led the weapons ban fight in the Senate last year. "Clearly this means the majority leader has decided to side himself against the police, families and victims and . . . 69% of the American people," Feinstein said, referring to polls that show wide support for the ban.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) threw cold water on Dole's notion Friday, saying that it is "unrealistic" for him to expect such a bill to reach Clinton's desk by summer.
"Sen. Dole didn't discuss that with me. But if he had, I would have told him that I think that we'd be on the floor a long time if it came to a repeal of the assault weapons ban," Daschle said. Last year's "actions taken by the Senate were courageous, were necessary. . . . And I suspect that the Senate will stand on the record that it's already established in that regard."
The ban was one of the last victories produced by the Democratic-controlled Congress before the November elections gave the reins of congressional power to Republicans, many of them fiercely loyal to the NRA. The new majority has deliberately steered clear of the explosive issue in the first 100 days out of concern that it would tie up Congress and make it impossible to take care of other business.
Senate Republicans are working on a crime bill that would greatly revise the $30-billion package passed by Democrats last year and the assault weapons ban is not expected to have a place in it.
But with Dole's new intentions now out in the open, gun-control advocates conceded Friday that they face an uphill fight to maintain the ban.
Of the 56 senators who initially voted for the ban, only 48 returned to Congress this term, three short of a majority. A few of those are Republicans subject to Dole's persuasions and hardly can be counted as solidly behind the ban, said Bob Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., the group founded by former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady and his wife, Sarah Brady. James Brady was severely wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
"The President is a very strong supporter and will hopefully veto a repeal, but he has not issued an unequivocal vow," Walker said. "We are not going to rest on the assumption the President would veto or that a veto would be sustained. We have to take this battle very seriously."
Dole's letter stemmed from a meeting earlier this month with the NRA's Metaksa regarding firearms issues in the 104th Congress. An NRA spokesman called the meeting routine and said that the NRA had no comment on Dole's intentions, repeating only that: "Sen. Dole's letter speaks for itself."
Although Dole always has been a staunch defender of the right to bear arms, he said in a January interview on CBS' "Face the Nation" that other less divisive issues are his priority this year.
Dole's office would not discuss what changed the senator's mind. But in a statement released Friday, Dole gave a lukewarm response to Feinstein's heated threat of a filibuster, saying it came as no surprise.
"From the outset of this Congress, it has been our intention to consider anti-crime legislation in the months ahead and our focus will be on punishing criminals, not limiting the freedom of law-abiding Americans. Notwithstanding today's (Feinstein) press conference, it is my view that the Senate will consider repealing the gun ban passed as part of last year's pork-laden crime bill."
Critics attributed Dole's change of heart less to his belief in the right to bear arms than to his 1996 presidential aspirations. Gun owners are a formidable group in key Republican primary states such as New Hampshire.
"This is a stunning turnaround," said one Senate Democratic aide. "I would strongly suggest this has much to do with Dole's ambition to be the next President of the United States. His presidential ambition is dictating his politics and policy as the Senate leader."
But others suggested that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) could be forcing Dole's hand and that the weapons ban likely would land in the Senate this year whether or not Dole brings it there.
Gingrich has promised the NRA that the House will take up a repeal of the ban in May. He recently formed a task force on firearms, with six of its seven members holding an A-rating from the NRA, Walker said. That rating indicates strong support of NRA goals.
"The task force results are a foregone conclusion," Walker said, and any bill subsequently passed by the House would proceed directly to the Senate.
Estimates indicate that there are ample votes to overturn the ban in the House: An estimated 225 members hold A-ratings from the NRA and only 218 votes are needed for passage.
But gun-control advocates believe that they have public opinion on their side. A January NBC poll cited by Walker found that 76% of those questioned supported the ban, with 19% opposed, a 4-1 margin.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen and David Phinney, who works for States News Service, contributed to this story.