In the recent congressional debate over crime control, there was much talk about the Constitution. Defendants' rights were hotly contested as were legal and moral constraints on capital punishment.

The constitutionality of the laws is certainly a legitimate issue to be considered on the floor of Congress. It is not legitimate, however, to manufacture a constitutional issue when the courts have agreed for years that the "issue" in question does not exist. This is what has happened in the recent debate about control of military-style assault weapons, where reasoned debate was overcome by the unsupportable claim that restrictions would violate the Second Amendment's right to keep and bear arms. {"Gun Lobby Emerged a Winner on Hill", front page, Nov. 1.} All rhetoric aside, these lawmakers and their mentors in the National Rifle Association should recognize the undeniable fact that the Second Amendment has never been an impediment to laws limiting private ownership of firearms.

Last year, the Bush administration, recognizing a special threat to the public safety from drug dealers, gang members and other criminals, barred 43 specific foreign-made assault rifles from importation. On the unassailable theory that an AK-47 made in America is no less lethal than one made abroad, the administration also supported a provision in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1990 that would have prohibited domestic manufacture of identical rifles. Incredibly, lawmakers instead amended the bill to explicitly preserve the right to manufacture these weapons.

Prodded on by the NRA, legislator after legislator charged that restrictions on the domestic manufacture of assault weapons would violate the right to keep and bear arms. Such distortion of the well-established meaning of the Second Amendment should not go unanswered.

The full text of the Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." The amendment is unique among the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, because its purpose is clearly expressed in its text. This was explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court in its 1939 opinion in United States v. Miller, where it said that the "obvious purpose" of the amendment was "to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness" of state militias and that it "must be interpreted and applied with that end in view."

The clear meaning of Miller is that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to be armed for private purposes unrelated to the organized state militia, whether they be hunting, recreation or even self-protection. The fact is that no American today owns an AK-47 or any other kind of firearm for reasons even remotely related to the organized militia or the "security of a free state." The days when militiamen were required by law to muster for military exercises in the town square -- complete with their own guns and well-groomed horses -- are long gone.

Since Miller, the Supreme Court has twice more reaffirmed that the Second Amendment protects only state militias, not the private ownership of guns. In a 1968 case (Burton v. Sills), the court dismissed, for lack of a "substantial federal question," a gun owner's appeal from a state court decision holding that the Second Amendment permits regulation of firearms "so long as the regulation does not impair the maintenance of the active, organized militias of the states." In Lewis v. United States (1980), the court ruled that legislative restrictions on the use of firearms do not "trench upon any constitutionally protected liberties."

Following the Supreme Court's lead, the lower federal courts have shown a remarkable unanimity in applying the Second Amendment. Never in history has a federal court invalidated a law regulating the private ownership of firearms on Second Amendment grounds. Indeed, that the Second Amendment poses no barrier to strong gun laws is perhaps the most well-settled proposition in American constitutional law. Yet the incantation of this phantom right continues to pervade congressional debate.

The National Rifle Association and its friends in Congress are, of course, free to argue against new gun laws on policy grounds. Let them put forth whatever case they can for the wisdom and morality of allowing anyone to sell and utilize weapons like the AK-47 -- weapons that can fire scores of bullets in seconds with murderous effect. However, to assert that the Constitution is a barrier to reasonable gun laws, in the face of the unanimous judgment of the federal courts to the contrary, exceeds the limits of principled advocacy. It is time for the NRA and its followers in Congress to stop trying to twist the Second Amendment from a reasoned (if antiquated) empowerment for a militia into a bulletproof personal right for anyone to wield deadly weaponry beyond legislative control.

The writer, a former dean of the Harvard Law School, served as solicitor general in the Nixon administration.