As a farmer I need and keep a gun. It is a tool, like a calf-puller, kept handy and brought out when needed. And never predictably. My wife groans to see it, for it is inevitably a sign that things have taken a bad turn and there is no other remedy.

Sometimes the occasion is an act of mercy. Sometimes it is an act of protection. I have killed dogs and coyotes attacking livestock. I have killed possums in the henhouse and recidivist raccoons ravaging the garden. I have killed groundhogs undermining an outbuilding. Sometimes it is a painfully belabored judgment call, sometimes it is a harsh immediacy, as the sunny day when a fox was behaving erratically in the barn lot.

Though unlikely, I must also consider the potential need for a gun for protection against human depredations. Meanness occurs in the countryside as well as the city, and our location is remote enough that whatever trouble finds its way to our doorstep will likely be resolved, one way or another, before official help has time to respond.

On one occasion, in my absence, a rifle was a welcome companion for my wife in her 2 a.m. visit to the barn to see why all the lights were on. Perhaps the stranger she encountered there meant no harm and was indeed "borrowing" some tools to get his truck started again. I do not, however, like to consider the possibilities of that confrontation where her safety is dependent on that intruder's good intentions.

I have also used guns for sport, though I confess hunting has lost all appeal to me in recent years. A good number of my friends and neighbors remain avid hunters, however, and are quite responsible with their firearms (though the newest crop of city-bred hunters worry me mightily with their complete lack of outdoors IQ).

But the point I wish to make, in no uncertain terms, is that the National Rifle Association does not speak for me. For while I am one who believes strongly in the Second Amendment, I also believe gun control is an issue with a tolerable middle ground.

As a farmer, I experience that middle ground of reasonable usage on a daily basis. Consider the example of ammonium nitrate, a bona fide agricultural ingredient with widespread and longstanding use as a fertilizer.

Since its involvement in the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, its availability in bagged form has been severely curtailed, which is an inconvenience for many legitimate users, to be sure. But in the larger scheme of things, its restriction presents an acceptable compromise in a world where the illicit use of such substances presents a growing danger to all of us. And the fertilization of crops continues, in slight accommodation to this new reality, unabated.

The same rule of reasonable restriction may be applied to firearms, with regard to assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines. The well-demonstrated danger of such extreme weapons in the wrong hands outweighs any real benefit you might imagine for a legal use.

What, for instance, might be the number of legitimate instances that a home in this country comes under such heavy assault that an assault rifle is required for its defense? Or that a super-size capacity of rapid-fire ammunition is necessary to repel the invaders? The danger is best characterized as imaginary.

It does not require much imagination, on the other hand, to foresee ourselves on the other end of that spectrum - innocent victims in our daily lives, in shopping malls, schools, offices and theaters.

There is little debate that the prime use of these weapons and enhancements is killing humans. Recent experience demonstrates that aggression, not defense, is the main expression of that use. Who among us, not deranged, would claim that as a right?

I remember, many years back, finishing a long day in the field with a crew that was housing a neighbor's tobacco crop. As we loafed around the water cooler, a vehicle found its way down the long farm lane to the empty wagons we sat upon. The driver got out and made friendly banter and then opened up his trunk to reveal quite an inventory of firearms, many of which were illegal at that time.

The one, of course, that got the most attention was the assault rifle with an extra capacity magazine. We watched in amazement as he took casual aim and tore an old outhouse to shreds with a prolonged volley of the large-caliber explosions.

Nobody that day bought a gun. For some, the attraction was high, but the price tag was higher. For others the practical value of such a weapon was unapparent. But the lingering residue from that little event was my own assessment, admittedly colored over time, of the characters involved. Put most simply, the men in whose hands I would most trust those extreme weapons were the same individuals who had no interest in them. And vice versa. NRA's Wayne LaPierre seems to be speaking for the latter.

James Gash, an Owenton, Ky., cattle farmer, is author of "Two Kingdoms," a novel about tobacco wars in the Bluegrass State. He wrote this for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

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