PERHAPS YOU'RE WONDERING why America is so dangerously loaded with pistols -- and the answers rest with a fiercely defensive, well-monied and highly secretive group of executives who manufacture, import and push in every way the handgun. As an eye-opening account Sunday by staff writer Art Pine revealed, these legalized and virtually unregulated gun sellers see no particular reason to tighten up their marketing -- even if there is a resurgence of public concern about handgun killings. No, it's business as usual: says Guenter W. Bachmann, a vice president of Smith & Wesson, a leading handgun manufacturer, "This is a logical and an honorable business activity. There's no need to add any regulations."

Of course not -- just as there's no need to figure out why Mr. Bachmann's company led the league of firms that manufactured an estimated 2.17 million handguns in 1979. After all, pistols are so useful: they're used routinely, every day -- for murder. Without such freewheeling sales and availability, it would be difficult to match the shattering total of 10,728 handgun deaths that were reported last year by the FBI.

The reason gun manufacturers prefer to lay low when it comes to inquiries about their industry, their profits or their corporate leaders is that they don't have to care a whole lot: gun making is one of the least regulated industries in U.S. business. Manufacturers are licensed, but anyone with $50 for a Treasury fee can quality; there's no background check. For $10, no questions asked, anyone can get a dealer's permit. Storage? No requirements.

The handgun manufacturers' greatest friend and front, of course, is the National Rifle Association. Much money is fed into the NRA by the industry and people who still believe the NRA is just a club for hunters and sportsmen. The NRA churns out propaganda extolling the virtues not just of the rifle -- its middle name -- but also and importantly of pistols, arguing that "prohibitive firearms laws . . . don't work." To distract from the insanity of making and marketing millions of handguns every year, the NRA keeps calling for "swift and certain punishment of criminal violators," as if this weren't supported by every reasonable citizen in America.

Of course people who commit crimes with guns should be punished swiftly -- but who besides the armed forces and police should have handguns? What do they have to do with hunting, or with riflery? The NRA and the politicians it still frightens so easily should be protecting the interests of hunters, sportsmen and other peace-loving rifle owners and their neighbors by joining the growing number of people who want handguns taken off the wide-open market -- for good.