Among the many mysteries of life there is this one: Why is the American Civil Liberties Union considered a fringe organization -- ridiculed by George Bush in the last campaign -- while the National Rifle Association is viewed as the very essence of Americanism? Before you answer, consider this: the NRA wants to legalize machine guns.

You read that right: machine guns. The federal government contends that the ownership of such guns is illegal. The NRA says otherwise and would like the issue settled in court -- the Supreme Court, to be precise. The NRA expects that the high court will rule that the Second Amendment says precisely what the NRA thinks it does: Americans have a constitutional right to "keep and bear arms" -- any kind of arms.

The zealousness of the NRA may have at last done it in. Around the nation police chiefs and others are yelling bloody murder. For some reason, they don't think that machine guns should be legal. They contend they already have their hands full with semiautomatic weapons much favored by drug dealers and, it seems, every other kid on the street. The admonition of the sergeant in "Hill Street Blues" cannot, it seems, be overstated: be careful out there. Yes, indeed.

But how careful can the rest of us be? Not careful enough, it seems. Just recently, I came across two mind-boggling figures. The first was Washington's murder rate for 1964: 8.4 per 100,000. The second was the city's current murder rate. Over 80. When I received those figures, I thought a mistake had been made. Could it be possible that since 1964 the murder rate had increased by so much? No, I thought. I checked again. The same figures came back. Ye gods. The sergeant was right: be careful out there.

Now I am not about to blame the current homicide rate solely on the availability of guns. Clearly other factors are at work as well. But since most homicides are now committed with guns, it figures that without guns these murders would be a lot harder to commit. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, it's perfectly true that people kill people. But increasingly they do so with guns. For instance, a bunch of Washington teenagers just recently drove by a school yard and opened fire. Hard to do that sort of thing with a knife.

When the counting is done, it's likely that no other city will have Washington's murder rate. But many cities will come close. In all those cities, the problem is two-fold: homicidal people and guns. Since the people cannot be removed, the guns ought to be. It's a task no city or state can do on its own. All local gun control laws have to be relative failures. Washington, for instance, has a strict one. But the authorities here say that of the 8,500 guns seized since 1988, 70 percent were traced to distributors in Virginia and Maryland.

But Congress will never pass a really tough national gun control law. The so-called "gun lobby," consisting of everything from neo-Nazis to nature-loving hunters, will not permit it. For the love of hunting, Congress long ago decided to endanger wild animals and city dwellers as well.

Here is where the NRA comes to the rescue. By taking such an extreme position (machine guns!) it might force the Supreme Court to settle the Second Amendment question once and for all. If common sense plays any role, the court will rule that the Founding Fathers really did have a militia in mind. You want a gun, join the National Guard. Otherwise, the government has the right to regulate gun ownership -- and, one would hope, regulate it severely and rationally. Just because a weapon (like a semi-automatic) can be used for hunting doesn't mean it should be legal.

But what if the Supreme Court sides with the NRA? Not likely, I think, but such a decision would be so stupendously at odds with the reality of contemporary America that one would think -- maybe "hope" is a better word -- that Americans would finally amend the Constitution. Knowing this country, it's folly to think that guns would be outlawed altogether. It might mean, though, that reasonable gun laws would be enacted -- and handguns, the real menace, would become as rare as hen's teeth.

All that stands in the way is the political clout of the gun lobby. But as the NRA takes more and more extreme positions and as more Americans realize that unrestricted gun ownership is a dangerous idea, sensible gun control might become a reality. As for me, I await Charlton Heston's equating machine guns with the American way of life. No, Charlton, it's actually the bazooka.