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Two takes on guns // A MUDDLED MESSAGE

This week presumptive Republican nominee Bob Dole signaled a softening of his long opposition to the assault weapons ban passed into law two years ago. His latest move to the center was intended to woo suburban Republican women, who strongly support the weapons ban but not yet Dole's bid for president. Unfortunately, Dole's remarks _ an awkward balancing act _ left his audience more confused than dazzled.

Before he gave his speech at the Virginia state police headquarters, Dole's aides promised that he would decisively end all opposition to the ban. But Dole's muddled remarks were anything but decisive. Dole called the ban "ineffective' and touted a nationwide system of checking prospective gun buyers. After saying the debate had "moved beyond' the ban, he failed to give a clue as to whether he still favored its repeal. When asked what Dole meant, his press secretary could only answer, "He wants to focus on what works."

Candidate Dole is precariously trying to walk a political tight-rope: reaching out to moderate voters without alienating the conservative wing of his party. But, given his watered-down and oblique message, moderate voters cannot be faulted for doubting the sincerity of the messenger. Dole would do well to make his position plain: Would a President Dole veto his party's attempt to repeal the ban?

As Senate majority leader, Dole actively and unsuccessfully opposed the ban. After it was enacted, he told the National Rifle Association that repealing the ban was one of his legislative priorities. But when the House later passed its repeal, he said that action on the ban would have to give way to more important legislative items. In light of this vacillation, Dole should have seized the opportunity to speak with a clear voice, once and for all.

Though his position is far from clear, Dole is right about one thing: The assault weapons ban is not, by itself, an effective answer. Gun manufacturers have found ways to circumvent the ban. Many of the 19 assault weapons covered are back on the market in some other form.

But repealing the ban would make the wrong statement. Assault weapons put our citizens _ and law enforcement personnel _ in danger. These semiautomatic weapons have no place in the homes or arms of civilians. Notwithstanding his past opposition, candidate Dole would do well to come down off the high-wire long enough to clearly say what he means.