In reading the debate on the op-ed pages between Irwin Griswold {"Phantom Second Amendment Rights," Nov. 4} and Michael McCabe of the NRA {"The Right to Keep Firearms," Nov. 13} on the meaning of the enigmatic Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I found little emphasis on either side upon the words ''well regulated'' that modify the word ''Militia'' in the language of the amendment. To me, they are the key to a full understanding of the right, and they also suggest a major obligation on the part of all gun owners.

The personal right to own a gun that the Second Amendment grants to individuals is tempered with the government's power as conferred by this language to regulate that right and to regulate it well. No other provision of the Bill of Rights grants the government such explicit authority over the exercise of a right.

The importance of this language is underscored by comparison to the right of freedom of speech as set forth in the First Amendment. Even though there is no similar constraining language in the free-speech clause itself, courts have long recognized the government's authority to regulate the ''time, place and manner'' in which that right is exercised. Surely the government's power to regulate the right to own firearms is even greater if there is specific language in the Second Amendment to back it up.

Also, it is instructive to read the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Miller, which has been bandied about in this titanic dispute. In that case the high court reviewed exhaustively the history of the popular militia in early America in order to explain the context in which the Second Amendment was created.

The case suggests to me that at the time the amendment was written the right to bear private arms was linked to a duty to serve in the defense of the state. When interpreting the Constitution for our era as we must, shouldn't we read the language of the Second Amendment to require gun owners to serve in the active and reserve units of the U.S. armed forces or the National Guard of each state as a condition to their right to bear arms?