As the chief executive officer of two national pro- gun groups, I am acutely aware of the fact that there is one group in our society whose rights, though consistently violated, are ignored by the media and civil liberties advocates. That group is the more than 60 million gun owners in America.

Granted, gun owners don't have much media appeal as an oppressed group. Yet their rights are in all too many cases violated by state law and local ordinances, by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (which is being closed down to prevent any further abuses of the rights of Americans) and by the whims of local officials.

Every state in the nation recognizes the right of self- defense and has in its statutes the act of justifiable homicide. In defense against death or serious bodily harm, one citizen may legally take the life of another.

Unfortunately, the laws governing who may possess the means of self-defense, and under what conditions, vary markedly. These laws, under the term gun control, vary from minimum standards set by federal law (no interstate sales, registration at the point of retail sale, no sales to convicted felons, etc.) to extremely strict regulation. New York City, for instance, requires that any person wanting to possess any gun in his home obtain a special license. To actually carry a handgun in New York City's crime- plagued streets requires another license that can be obtained only with great difficulty and after long delays. Washington, D.C., totally banned the sale and importation of handguns in 1977.

The justification for these senseless laws, of course, is that public safety requires that criminals not have access to handguns. Yet the criminal with more money than respect for the law can always buy a handgun on the street. In the meantime, his victim is deprived of the right to protect one's life--that is, self-defense. But essential to self-defense is access to the effective means of self-defense: a weapon. In the modern world, this means a gun, and probably a handgun.

This common law right to self-defense is reinforced by our Constitution. Too often it is forgotten that our Bill of Rights only recognizes certain of the rights we possess--it does not grant us anything. The Second Amendment to the Constitution states, "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 wording of the Second Amendment has been a source of controversy and confusion. The anti-gunners believe that the right to keep and bear arms belongs only to the organized militia, such as the National Guard, and claim that the Supreme Court has on more than one occasion ruled that this right is not an individual right.

The Supreme Court has never made any such ruling. Only once in the 20th century has the issue even been dealt with directly by the court. This case, United States vs. Miller (1939), addressed the right to possess and carry a sawed-off shotgun, in violation of the National Firearms Act of 1936.

The court held that, absent evidence supporting such a contention, it could not take judicial notice that a sawed-off shotgun "has any reasonable relation to the preservation of a well-regulated militia; and therefore (we) cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon."

The court did not rule that the term "militia" in the Second Amendment is the equivalent of the state reserves. It did say, by implication, that citizens are members of the unorganized militia, a position that gun owners have long maintained.

This unorganized militia is clearly what the Founding Fathers were referring to in the Constitution. Patrick Henry wrote: "Who are the militia? They consist of the whole people." A variant of that definition has been included in each version of the U.S. Code, to the present day.

The constitutional right to keep and bear arms is absolute, and it is only a reflection of the even more basic right to self-defense. As civil libertarians are quick to argue on most occasions, this important right should not be sacrificed on the false altar of public safety.