Richard Cohen's commentary "No Right To Bear Machine Guns" {op-ed, Jan. 1} states the obvious: no one, other than military or law enforcement personnel, has a legitimate need for a machine gun.

I did not renew my membership in the NRA several years ago because of the irresponsible direction in which that organization was heading; I felt it no longer represented the views of responsible mainstream American society. Having said that, I hasten to add that I maintain a handgun in my home for the purpose of defending it (I have no children in the home, and my wife and I know well how to use the weapon). While I hope I never have a need to use the gun, it is comforting to know it is there.

Mr. Cohen lapsed into the "guns are the cause of crime," liberal syndrome when he cited statistics stating that 70 percent of the guns seized in Washington since 1988 were traced to distributors in Maryland and Virginia; therefore, "local" (read D.C.) gun control laws cannot work. If there is any correlation between the availability of guns and crime, why did Fairfax County in 1990, with a population 30 percent larger than the District's and with guns legally available, experience only one murder for every 18 committed in the District? There can be only one answer -- there are many more murderers per capita in the District than in Northern Virginia.

What is it that so blinds liberals like Mr. Cohen to the fact that there are lawbreakers in society, a disproportionate share of whom perpetrate their acts in the inner cities? Drunken drivers killed 22,000 people in 1990; why don't Mr. Cohen and his ilk advocate the abolition of cars? Perhaps it's because they know that with drunken driving, the focus is on the agent of death and not the instrument, and that is as it should be. JOHN D'AGOSTINO JR. Oakton, Va.

Richard Cohen's supporting attempts at "gun control" is nothing new, but the inanity of his column "No Right To Bear Machine Guns" demands response.

Just as Mr. Cohen disagrees with the "fringe" characterization of the American Civil Liberties Union for zealously defending the First Amendment, firearms owners disagree with his characterization of the National Rifle Association as a "fringe" organization for zealously defending the Second Amendment -- a right regularly and actively exercised by 60 million to 65 million law-abiding American citizens.

Saying "the NRA wants to legalize machine guns" is a lie. Worse, Mr. Cohen deliberately demagogues on this narrow judicial issue to attack the private ownership of all firearms. NRA involvement in the Farmer v. Higgins case before the Supreme Court seeks to clarify the government's reading of the 1986 McClure-Volkmer Act regarding fully automatic firearms versus longstanding methods of statutory interpretation. It is not an attempt to repeal the 1934 National Firearms Act nor is it an attempt to legalize unregulated, "over-the-counter" sale of fully automatic firearms.

The federal government does not contend that "the ownership of {machine} guns is illegal," because it administers a stringent licensing procedure that since 1934 has approved about 175,000 fully automatic firearms for possession by citizens.

Mr. Cohen's portrayal of this case as increasing criminal use of fully automatic firearms is also a gross misrepresentation. However this case is resolved will have nothing to do with public safety or criminal activity, but it has everything to do with removing a threat to the freedoms of America's law-abiding citizens. In fact, since 1934 no legally owned fully automatic firearms have ever been used in the commission of a violent crime by civilians. Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Crime in 1986, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Director Stephen Higgins stated: "It is not those legitimately-held {fully automatic} guns which are the problem. ... Registered machine guns that are involved in crimes are so minimal so as not to be considered a law enforcement problem."

It is unclear what Mr. Cohen's contentions about the District of Columbia's homicide rate have in common with this Supreme Court case. If anything, such data is proof that "gun control" does not work to prevent crime. The U.S. homicide rate in 1964 was 4.8 per 100,000, while the District's was 8.4. Now the U.S. homicide rate is about 9.3, while the District's is more than 80.

In the interim, there were two major changes related to guns in the District. First, in 1968 it became a felony offense to evade the District's gun laws by going out of the District to buy a gun. Second, since 1976 the ownership of unregistered handguns in the District has been prohibited and no new handgun registration has been allowed. Yet the District has experienced an 850 percent increase in its homicide rate during the period cited by Mr. Cohen, compared with a doubling of the national rate. It is conspicuously obvious that "gun control" has not even slightly deterred violent criminals.

These facts notwithstanding, Mr. Cohen calls for the confiscation of the legally owned property of citizens, because "homicidal people ... cannot be removed, the guns ought to be." He further proclaims that if the Supreme Court goes against his opinion, the nation should rip open the fabric of the Constitution by amending it. How soon he forgets thunderous editorial objections to opening up the First Amendment after the Supreme Court decision on flag burning.

RICHARD GARDINER Director, State and Local Affairs National Rifle Association Washington