Handguns, USA. They protect, they provide sport, they kill. The role of handguns, and the emotions they evoke, runs deep in America. Monitor photographer R. Norman Matheny spent three days in one small town -- Poplar Bluff, Missouri -- looking at how handguns fit into everyday life. Here is his visual report:

Both sides put their message before public The battle is escalating between defenders of a United States citizen's right to ``bear arms'' and those seeking restraints.

The National Rifle Association, foe of most -- but, not all -- attempts to regulate firearms, has had a slick ``I'm the NRA'' campaign since 1981 to show the diversity of its membership. Its ads appear in publications such as Newsweek, Reader's Digest, and Boys Life, featuring people such as a pastor and a woman detective.

In opposition are those who want to abolish handguns (notably the National Coalition to Ban Handguns) and those who wish only to regulate them more effectively (such as Boston's Citizens for Handgun Control). Lacking NRA's advertising resources, they are seeking alternatives such as:

Product-liability suits against the manufacturers of handguns.

Public education in alternatives in family safety without resorting to handguns.

Efforts to classify injury and death by handguns as a ``public health'' issue. What National Rifle Association says: 1. The right to ``keep and bear arms'' is a right granted by the Second Amendment to every law-abiding US citizen. The US Supreme Court has continually upheld this interpretation. 2. Stricter laws on private handgun ownership laws will result in stricter controls on all firearms. 3. Most violent crimes involving handguns are committed by repeat of- fenders, not by law-abiding citizens in temporary moments of rage. 4. There is no conclusive evidence that stricter handgun control will re- duce the number of handgun deaths. 5. There is evidence that armed citizens, if trained, deter criminals. 6. There is evidence that speedy punishment of criminals deters crime. What handgun-control advocates say 1. The right to ``keep and bear arms'' is not an individual right but a collective one, allowing a state to raise a militia. The US Supreme Court has consistently upheld this interpretation. 2. Tighter controls on private ownership of handguns will not necessarily lead to tighter controls on other firearms. 3. Most violent crimes involving handguns are committed by law-abiding citizens in a momentary state of rage, who have access to a handgun. 4. There is conclusive evidence that stricter handgun controls will reduce the number of handgun deaths. 5. There is no evidence that armed citizens deter criminals. In fact, armed citizens aggravate criminals, who usually wish to avoid confrontation. 6. The problem is easy access to handguns, not a faulty judicial system. The latest gun-control debate: legal status of machine guns

The movie ``Rambo'' has popularized the image of a lone hero taking the law, and lots of firepower, into his own hands to right the world's wrongs. Unfortunately, when latter-day Robin Hoods take to the streets they are more often simple hoods.

Such was the case when Los Angeles police detective Thomas Williams was gunned down as he picked up his son at a day-care center on Halloween. Mr. Williams's service revolver was no match for the 1,000-round-per-minute MAC-10 assault rifle (similar to the one shown at left) his killers used in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme to avenge testimony he gave in the trial of a convicted felon.

Such incidents fuel the growing debate between those who assert a US citizen's right to own firearms, including legal semiautomatic weapons, and those who protest that such weapons are too easily converted into illegal machine guns. Even the National Rifle Association supports efforts to curtail illegal conversions.

Existing laws forbid such conversions but parts can be obtained with relative ease and the skills required are only those of a competent amateur gunsmith. For example, last April's police raid on the Arkansas camp of the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord, a paramilitary, racist group with ties to the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi organizations, uncovered a well-equipped gun shop and a cache of illegal automatic weapons. CSA is the alleged source of the silencer-equipped MAC-10 machine gun that was used t o murder Denver radio talk-show host Alan Berg last year.

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