The big money gun-pushers of America don't like this question, but it's a necessary one: why do so many Americans take false comfort in a belief that they're better protected if they keep firearms at home? The chilling fact is that those household weapons are far more likely to kill an occupant of a home than to protect it from intruders. According to a six-year study in King County, Washington (including Seattle and surrounding areas), the most likely victim of a firearm death in the home is the trigger-puller: suicides accounted for nearly 84 percent of the total. Of 398 firearm deaths in the home, only two -- one-half of 1 percent -- proved to be an intruder shot during an attempted entry.

"The great majority of homeowners are probably better off not having a protective firearm," says the study's author, Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Memphis and director of the Emergency Department at the Regional Medical Center there. "If they keep guns, they should keep them securely stored, with ammunition stored separately, if at all, in the home."

That's sensible advice, offered not as an argument for any particular side in the debate over firearms legislation, but as a conclusion from a serious study of mortality in the home. Hunters and sportsmen who store their firearms carefully -- disassembled and locked -- recognize the dangers of loaded guns in the dresser drawers, closets and hands of others at home.

But why can't the organization that used to concentrate on the interests of these hunters and sportsmen -- the National Rifle Association -- at least agree that keeping guns around the house for "self-defense at home" is as dangerous as it is ineffective? No wonder all those organizations of law enforcement authorities around the country are furious at the NRA's refusal to help them reduce the supply and traffic of concealable weapons. It's a matter of public safety.

"The problem of firearms is not just a ghetto problem or a street problem," says Dr. Kellermann. "It's Ma and Pa America in their living room getting in a fight and one of them picking up the family firearm. It's your next-door neighbor in a fit of deep depression and possibly intoxicated, picking up a gun and ending his life. It's a problem we all share as Americans."