Each time our national character is defiled by an assassination, custodians of U.S. guilt dust off statistics on how many of us wind up on the wrong end of a handgun each year, how many of us are gunned down by a family member or a friend, within how many miles of home or how many feet of the refrigerator, in the country or in the city, from a rowboat or while shopping for spare automobile parts.

In response, cheerleaders for an untamed American id produce their own statistics on how many law-abiding citizens use handguns for legitimate purposes, like blowing away squirrels and other small animals or taking taget practice in the back yard in case they're assaulted by empty tomato paste cans.

The national debate on handgun control in variably digresses into a game of numbers, and key-punch operators become the political philosophers of our time. Once we are all numbered by the prolific exchanges of conflicting data, we settle back complacently until another of the world's great individuals has his insides splattered all over a wall somewhere. The critical social and political arguments, pro and con, we buried under a heap of meaningless data, and your health and welfare, along with mine, are made no less insecure.

Political philosophers of days past were not limited by the capabilities of their software; they delighted in the opportunity to define and refine issues related to the public good, to protections afforded by the social contract and to society's assurances relative to life, liberty and happiness.

In their place we have lobbyists, think tanks and pollsters spewing out an endless stream of numbers to substantiate their narrow preconceived notions. And with every number, for which there is equal and opposite number, little Johnny gets his head blown off.

Those who feel that a total ban on handguns in our society has gone far beyond being long overdue are tired of waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise. Handguns have no purpose other than to kill people; killing people is not good; we should not let the current national debate on handgun control simmer on the back burner in yet another pot of numbers.

Everytime someone is assassinated, proponents of handgun control rev up their lobbies and pollsters to tell you that 147.6 out of every 182.3 handgun fatalities occur in the game room; that, in November 1979, 52.8 percent of the persons polled on handgun control couldn't understand the question; that sophisticated research studies indicate that, of Zip-Loc bags (43 percent), microwave ovens (33 percent) and handguns (26 percent), handguns are rapidly becoming the least essential element in productive suburban environments.

But what they're saying is, "Handguns kill and we don't like them and we'll continue generating meaningless data until they're banned."

Opponents crank up their own number machines to tell you that 17 widows in Fort Lauderdale alone warded off the attacks of intruders by keeping a handgun in a hollowed-out biography of Bebe Rebozo; that handgun deaths in St. Louis actually increased by 9.2374 percent after a new law prohibited handgun sales in an eight-square-mile area; that in 1973, the last time reliable statistics were available, 62.981 percent of the populace felt there is a constitutional right to fire upon empty tomato paste cans.

What they're really saying is "we like handguns. They're shiny and heavy and compact and, like Aqua-Velva, make a man feel like a man. And we'll continue to generate meaningless data to preserve our right to be violent."

Opponents of handgun control generate data to substantiate their arguments, which generally fall into one of three categories:

1) Handgun control will make common criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens who enjoy shooting squirrels;

2) Handgun control won't work;

3) Handgun control will take guns from people who need protection and leave them in the hands of public offenders.

Responses to these assertions may be formulated easily, using logic and common sense rather than computers and equations.

In response to argument No. 1, who cares? People from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore., are finding their brains in pools of blood on the floor, and no fourth-rate lobby can be permited to contribute to their violent deaths. The desire to torture small animals can no doubt be satiated in other ways -- say, by catching frogs and stomping on them with heavy boots.

In response to argument No. 2, so what? If the only laws on the books were those that are effectively enforced, we'd have very few laws. If handgun control saves one life per year in the United States, it will have "worked." If it doesn't work, who's worse off? What's the harm?

What relation exists in legal/political theory between the potential effectiveness of a statute and its appropriateness in our society? Should we take down stop signs at every intersection if it's determined that 72 percent of all drivers fail to come to a complete stop each time? Are the opponents of handgun control advocating marijuana legalization because you can buy a bag on any street corner? The answers are obviously "no," because those entrusted with interpreting the public good feel that stop signs are good for us and marijuana is not. And laws, irrespective of our ability to enforce them reflect, as they should, what is best for society in an ideal sense.

In response to argument No. 3, persons who believe they are better off with handguns when approached by others with handguns are wildly mistaken. Put yourself in any scenario involving a handgun assailant: picture yourself with and without a handgun, and ponder your odds for coming out of it alive. Common sense dictates that you're less likely to be murdered if your aggressor is not forced to think quickly about the use of his own handgun. (You're in your bedroom one night reading "Murder in Mesopotamia," and a burglar follows a handgun through your window. You may get raped. You may get roughed up and tied up. You may lose your grandmother's engagement ring. You may have to call American Express, your banker, your insurance agent and your shrink in the morning. But your chances of seeing another morning are greater if no sots are fired by anyone.)

Let's unplug the computers and the think, tanks and the pollsters, all coin-operated by individuals with vested interests, and put in their place a philosophical debate among citizens whose only concern is the health and welfare of our society and its individual members.