A great battle is brewing in Americaıs Heartland -- the last great gun battle of the 20th Century. This fight, however, will not be with guns, but about guns -- about guns and the rights of law abiding citizens to carry them. At issue is the nationıs first binding statewide referendum on concealed carry. At stake, ultimately, could be the future of the Second Amendment rights of every American citizen.

In April 1999, the voters of Missouri will pass judgment on a concealed carry ballot proposal whose victory -- or defeat -- will set the stage for the continuing national battle over gun ownersı rights well into the next century.

And while Missourians battle for a concealed carry law, Missouri will become a national battleground for a titan's clash between gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association and anti-gun groups like Handgun Control Inc.

Battles between these organizations are nothing new, but the direction they are taking may well be. Handgun Control is still reeling from last yearıs unprecedented defeat of Initiative 676 in Washington state. That proposal, a seemingly innocent trigger lock law, was in reality a licensing law that would have compromised the rights of law-abiding citizens to acquire guns.

Behind in the polls by margins as great as 68 percent to 32 percent and with their backs clearly against the wall, gun owners organized in an unprecedented grassroots effort with the NRA to raise more than $3 million to inform citizens about the deceptions in Initiative 676 and the loss of basic freedoms that would have resulted from its approval. Despite financial backing from the likes of software czar Bill Gates, a comparatively liberal political culture and an initially lopsided margin of public opinion against them, citizens advocating gun rights and the NRA took to the streets, spread the word and mounted a town-hall style campaign that ultimately crushed the anti-gun effort.

The defeat of Initiative 676 was a smashing blow against Handgun Control. The anti-gun organization had won big nationally with the Brady law in 1992. But in September 1994, the ban of guns that resembled military small arms resulted in a national backlash that fueled the Republican takeover of Congress in midterm elections just two months later.

Have soiled their nests nationally, anti-gun groups turned their efforts to the state level. Initiative 676 was to have been the first great offensive on gun rights at the state level. But what was to be a great victory for Sarah Brady and Handgun Control turned into a nationally humiliating defeat.

One political analyst characterized the victory of gun owners in Washington state as "turning Dunkirk into Normandy without getting wet."

The defeat of Initiative 676 was a defensive victory to save existing rights of gun owners. Now, pro-gun groups are taking the offensive to win new rights in Missouri as they join with the NRA for an unprecedented battle to reclaim gun rights that have been denied law-abiding citizens in that state since 1875.

Missouri is one of only seven states with absolutely no system by which any law-abiding citizen can obtain a permit to legally carry defensive firearms under a coat or in a purse. Even the ability of certified and commissioned police officers to carry weapons off duty is without statutory basis. For citizens, the concealed carry even of stun guns and chemical sprays is prohibited by law.

For six years, a small grassroots coalition of gun rights groups in Missouri has relentlessly lobbied the state Legislature for a permit system that would enable citizens to carry concealed handguns legally.

This effort, however, has been futile in a state where the chief executive is a close confidant of the Clinton presidency and the upper chamber of the Legislature refuses to limit debate, allowing a single senator to talk any bill to death.

The gun owners have grown weary of fighting anti-gun groups ranging from Handgun Control -- in 1996, Jim Brady personally called lawmakers the day of a final vote on a concealed carry measure urging its defeat -- to a police chiefıs association whose state president co-authored a booklet on how to defeat concealed carry.

With each annual effort, gun rights opponents turned legislative stalemates into a defeat for gun rights advocates. The breaking point -- for six straight years -- has been a public referendum. Referendums in Missouri are common, but gun owners there have steadfastly refused to put to a public vote what they believe to be a most fundamental right.

But a right denied is no right at all. And it is difficult to argue against democracy in America.

Now, pro-gun groups in Missouri have raised the stakes, armed themselves with democracy and called out Handgun Control for a showdown in April 1999.

On May 15, the Missouri gun coalition won a decisive, last- minute battle to move the concealed-carry measure out of the legislature, past the governor and directly to the people. If approved by voters, law-abiding citizens could obtain permits to carry concealed weapons legally after passing criminal background checks and taking 12 hours of training.

It will be the first binding statewide referendum on concealed carry in the nationıs history -- and the next major national battleground for gun groups like NRA and Handgun Control Inc.

For the proponents of gun rights in Missouri it is the equivalent of the Battle of Concorde. They are undertaking a winner-take-all blitzkrieg with their sights set on the greatest offensive pro-gun victory since the Second Amendment was ratified.

For Handgun Control, a second major defeat in as many years would be devastating to its efforts to raise money and pass further restrictions on the rights of gun owners at the national or state level.

As the battle plans are drawn for the Missouri Referendum -- the last great gun battle of the century -- both sides gird themselves for a conflict that neither can afford to lose. For the victor, the spoils of the battle will be the ability to control the future of gun rights in America as America enters a new and uncertain century of freedom. And for the vanquished, the future will be uncertain indeed.

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