Just like last year, this Mother's Day weekend is an occasion for anti-gun demonstrations, with chapters of the Million Mom staging events across the country.

But are the moms fighting for a worthy cause?

The argument that no sane society could tolerate the havoc guns inflict on America seems, on the face of it, compelling. In 1997, there were 21,259 handgun-related deaths and 11,177 deaths from other firearms in the United States; our homicide rates are three to 12 times higher than in Western Europe and Japan, where access to firearms is strictly controlled and handguns are generally unavailable to civilians.

But does this necessarily prove that the evil is in guns?

One rarely mentioned fact is that non-gun homicide rates in the United States exceed total homicide rates in many nations usually invoked as a contrast. In 1995, nearly three in 100,000 Americans were murdered without firearms; that year, most countries in Western Europe had homicide rates of about 1 per 100,000.

Some societies are armed but not dangerous. Switzerland has nearly universal gun ownership as well as a thriving gun culture (shooting contests for children 12 to 16 are a popular tradition) and one of the world's lowest crime rates. In Israel, any law-abiding citizen trained in firearms can get a permit to possess and carry a handgun, and army reservists often get to take their weapons home between stints of active duty --- but homicide rates are low, on a par with Western Europe.

If there can be guns without carnage, there can also be carnage without guns. In 1988, Russia had a higher homicide rate (9.8 per 100,000) than the United States (8.9). At the time, the Soviet regime was still firmly in place, and it was virtually impossible for an ordinary person to obtain a gun.

Suicide factor not considered

Homicide statistics don't tell the whole story, either. When anti-gun crusaders tell us that more than 32,000 people in America were "killed by gunfire" in 1997, they forget to mention that more than half of these deaths were self-inflicted.

Of course, suicide too could be blamed on guns. When a 1999 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a handgun buyer has a dramatically elevated risk of fatally shooting himself in the week following the purchase, the Violence Policy Center asserted that this "blow(s) away the argument that handguns are protectors."

But how often does a person buy a gun with no suicidal thoughts, then get upset a few days later and blow his brains out? Surely, the gun is usually part of the suicide plan. (By the way, the study included 238,292 gun buyers, 114 of whom shot themselves.)

Interestingly, when it comes to guns and suicide, we rarely hear paeans to the wisdom of nations that keep handguns out of people's hands. Maybe that's because such comparisons would overwhelmingly show that when it comes to self-destruction, lack of firepower is no deterrent. In 1996, the suicide rate in the United States was 11.8 per 100,000, compared with 13.4 in Canada, 17.9 in Japan and 25 in Finland.

Cars, water more dangerous

There's also no shortage of demagoguery on the wrenching issue of gun violence against children. We are told that more than 4,000 "children" were killed by gunfire in 1997. Yet fewer than 700 of these deaths involved children under 17. By comparison, more than 2,000 children under 15 die annually in car crashes and about 1,000 drown.

Sadly, America is indeed a less safe place to be a child than most developed countries. Iain Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service cites data showing that, compared with other Western nations, a child under 5 in the United States is at four times the risk of violent death. But just over 10 percent of these tragedies involve guns.

One reason the dangers of guns tend to be viewed very differently than, say, the danger of cars is that cars are presumed to serve a legitimate purpose, whereas guns are not. Yet there is, in fact, a good deal of evidence that the case for guns as a means of self-defense and crime prevention may be more than just National Rifle Association propaganda.

No one has convincingly refuted the work of John R. Lott, an economist teaching at Yale Law School, who concludes that state laws allowing any citizen with no criminal record to get a concealed weapon permit tend to result in lower rates of crime, including murder. Most of the mainstream media and punditry simply ignore Lott and scoff at the notion that guns may have benefits.

Ban is the ultimate goal

Few reasonable people object to handgun licensing and registration, or to measures that help keep lethal weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals, or of minors. There may be other sensible gun control proposals (though the effectiveness and safety of trigger locks and "smart gun" technologies are far from proven).

But if guns are truly the terrible scourge portrayed by anti-gun crusaders, it seems ludicrously inadequate to promote modest restrictions rather than a total or near-total ban on private ownership of handguns --- which is clearly the ultimate goal of many activists.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that such a ban could be enacted, and that it would be a good thing if only the military and police had access to guns. Could any laws actually accomplish this?

The truth is, this society isn't very good at keeping banned substances away from people. Last year, the fatal shooting of Michigan first-grader Kayla Rolland by a classmate sparked cries for anti-gun measures. Yet the 6-year-old shooter, who had found an illegal gun at home, lived in a house awash in illegal drugs --- in spite of draconian drug laws. What makes anyone think laws could have kept out the guns?

Prohibition would be difficult

Compared with drug prohibition, gun prohibition might prove even harder to enforce, with a large portion of the population opposed to the ban. There are already 65 million handguns (and 130 million other firearms) in private hands in America.

Unlike drugs, these weapons have a long shelf life; as with drugs, underground gun manufacture and traffic would likely spring up to meet new demand. And, like the War on Drugs, the War on Guns could ultimately endanger our civil liberties by creating pressures for expanded police powers to search and seize private property --- without being much more effective.

Gun fatalities have been steadily declining for years, despite rhetoric that feeds perceptions of a raging epidemic. There is probably more we can do to reduce gun violence. But this problem needs to be addressed with a clear understanding of the facts, without losing sight of the far larger problem of violence in America and without turning the gun debate into a morality play and demonizing the opposition. Otherwise, we will end up with nothing but simplistic and illusory solutions.