More than 100 million handguns are still privately owned in the United States because this country's gun lobby has successfully defended its interpretation of the "right to bear arms" that is described in the Second Amendment.

The horrendous death toll engendered by this proliferation of handguns eventually led to the forming of an anti-gun lobby, sometimes called a gun-control lobby. Public opinion polls have shown that most Americans side with the anit-gun lobby, but this has had little effect on gun legislation.

The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King did not trigger irresistible demands for gun control, possibly because the guns used were rifles, not handguns. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated with a handgun, and his death resulted in a discernible but not overwhelming increase in sentiment for gun control. John Lennon's death appears to have done more to center attention on handguns than any recent event, and you can make of that what you will.

In any case, there is an obvious and increasingly resented difference between prevailing gun laws and what is perceived to be the majority's demand for change.

One assumes that, in a democracy, the majority will be able to work its will. Why, then, has this majority failed to persuade its representatives to pass appropriate legislation?

My own view of the matter is that the majority is a loose coalition of people who have never taken the time and trouble to formulate their views on what needs to be done. The minority knows exactly what it wants: the right of every citizen to own firearms. The majority is vaguely aware that somebody ought to "do something" about guns. But there is no great unanimity as to what that "something" ought to be, and so nothing is done.

Politicians have an ancient adage that says, "You can't beat something with nothing." You may be against the incumbent, but you won't get rid of him unless a challenger arises who can make himself known to and supported by other members of the anti group. You may be against an existing law or government program, but you won't get rid of it until you gather other members of the anti group into a united front alternative.

The anti-gun majority has failed to do this because the anti-gun majority is in fact no majority at all. It is a coalition of like-minded minorities.

Many who support the anti-gun lobby want to ban all handguns except those used in law enforcement. Others fear that a prohibition against privately owned handguns would be obeyed only by honest citizens, leaving millions of handguns in the possession of the underworld. Many among the anti-gun majority think a good compromise would be to ban new gun purchases but permit present gun owners keep their weapons. Their reasoning is that if our ancestors had done that in 1880, there would be few handguns left in private hands in 1980. For good measure, there are millions of Americans who think we should begin by registering guns and licensing their owners, just as we register automobiles and license those who wish to operate them. Their argument is that if the qualifications for owning a gun are made strict and are gradually tightened, the problem can eventually be brought under control.

It appears self-evident that until the anti-gun majority coalesces into a homogeneous movement that agrees upon one precise policy rather than a smorgasbord of vague choices, the gun lobby will be able to continue to defend its position as easily as it has in the past.

A thoughtful and charismatic leader must come forward to act as a catalyst. The catalyst must be a person who understands that it will not be possible for him to achieve the first step toward minimizing gun deaths unless he has thought ahead and mapped out all the steps.

The public is not likely to buy a pig in a poke. Before people support a united front, they will want to know where the front's program proposes to take them, and by what route.

There are already enough handguns in the possession of criminals to pose a threat to public safety for at least 50 years. It is not likely that any anti-gun leader will be able to form a united front unless his program deals with this crucial point.

So tell us, oh charismatic leader: Just what does gun control mean to you? Spell it out for us. Run it up the flagpole and let's see who salutes. y