RICHMOND, Va. — Abandoning another cherished goal on the conservative agenda, Bob Dole said Tuesday a repeal of the ban on assault weapons, which he once called a top personal legislative priority, is no longer on his agenda.
Even with the current ban on 19 types of assault weapons, 11 are already back on the market in some other form. " . . . let's be realistic," he said. "We've moved beyond the debate."
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee made his remarks at the Virginia State Police headquarters and training academy before an audience of party activists at an event closed to the public.
Last year, when he was seeking the GOP nomination and was appealing to conservatives for support in the Republican primaries, Dole wrote Tanya K. Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Assn., that "repealing the ill-conceived gun ban passed as part of President Clinton's crime bill last year is one of my legislative priorities."
"Gun control," Dole wrote then, "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."
Now, however, Dole has begun to tack toward the center on several high-profile conservative issues, including abortion and affirmative action. Polls have consistently showed more than two-thirds of voters supporting the ban on assault weapons.
On Tuesday, Dole aides acknowledged that like his proposal to put a "declaration of tolerance" on abortion in the party platform, Dole's gambit on the assault weapons ban is designed in part to reach out to women, who in disproportionate numbers tell pollsters they favor Clinton over Dole.
But Dole's statement left many questions about his position. He took no questions from reporters and aides refused to say whether as president he would sign legislation to end the ban if Congress passed it.
Metaksa argued that he would. "He made that promise when he was majority leader of the U.S. Senate," she said. "I didn't hear today that he wasn't going to sign it if it got to his desk as president."
Clinton, who has often been accused of waffling on major issues, seized on Dole's ambiguity on this one, saying that he was mystified by Dole's remark.
"I'm not entirely sure what he meant," Clinton said at a White House news conference. "My position is clear," he added. "I fought for and passed the Brady bill, the assault weapons ban, the 100,000 police. If he now believes that we were right on that, then I applaud that."
In his speech, Dole seemed to be hoping to change the subject.
"Instead of endlessly debating which guns to ban, we ought to be emphasizing what's tried and true, and what works," he said.
Specifically, Dole renewed his call for a nationwide "instant check" system for all firearms purchases that he said is proving effective in many states in keeping guns of all types from those likely to misuse them.
Dole has taken several positions on the assault weapons ban.
Shortly after the GOP victory in the 1994 elections, when House GOP leaders began talking of repealing the ban, Dole downplayed the idea. Those opposed to repeal had the necessary 41 votes in the Senate to sustain a Democratic filibuster promised by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), he said.
But two months later, after meeting with the NRA leadership, Dole reversed course in his letter to Metaksa.
Times staff writer Josh Greenberg contributed to this story.