WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is mounting a surprise effort to repeal last year's ban on the possession and sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, indicating he now believes he has the votes to overturn the most sweeping gun control legislation ever passed by Congress.
In a recent letter to the National Rifle Association, the Kansas Republican vowed to make repeal of "the ill-conceived gun ban" a priority -- a turnaround from Mr. Dole'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," Mr. 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 to protect the legislation that outlawed 19 styles of assault weapons, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pledging at a news conference yesterday 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 Ms. 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 percent of the American people," Ms. Feinstein said, referring to polls that show wide support for the ban.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., threw cold water on Mr. Dole's notion yesterday, saying it was "unrealistic" for the GOP leader to expect such a bill to reach Mr. Clinton's desk by summer.
The ban was one of the last victories produced by the Democrat-controlled Congress before the November elections gave the reins of power to the Republicans, many of them fiercely loyal to the NRA.
The new majority has steered clear of the explosive issue in the first 100 days out of concern that it would tie up Congress.
With Mr. Dole's new intentions in the open, gun control advocates conceded yesterday that they now 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 Mr. Dole's persuasions as majority leader and can hardly be counted as solid, said Bob Walker, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., the Washington D.C.-based group founded by Jim and Sarah Brady. "We have to take this battle very seriously."
Although Mr. Dole has always 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 were his priority this year.
Mr. Dole's office would not discuss what changed the senator's mind. But in a statement released yesterday, Mr. Dole gave a lukewarm response to Ms. Feinstein's heated threat of filibuster, saying it came as no surprise.
Critics attributed Mr. 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 like New Hampshire.
But others suggested that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., could be forcing Mr. Dole's hand and that the weapons ban would likely land in the Senate this year whether or not Mr. Dole brings it there.
Mr. Gingrich has promised the NRA that the House will take up a repeal of the ban in May.