Pro-gun lobby turns from polishing its firearms to polishing its image.
Americans will be seeing ads characterizing gun owners as people ''like you and me,'' as they thumb through many of their favorite magazines this summer.
The campaign is part of a National Rifle Association (NRA) effort to buck popular notions that gun owners are a band of ''red-necks, criminals, and right-wing extremists,'' NRA spokesmen say.
It's a tough bill to fill, add gun owners, in the face of such highly publicized crimes as the shootings of President Reagan and John Lennon.
So in the face of the recent wave of state and local gun control measures - most notably the handgun bans in San Francisco and Morton Grove, Ill. - the NRA has countered with a $1 million ad campaign to change the public's perception of gun owners. The organization, which reports a surge of 600,000 new members in the first five months of 1982, wants to show that gun owners ''are like you and me.''
Beyond the public relations efforts, there is evidence of a wide base of responsible Americans who own guns and appear to have the political power to fend off strict gun controls at the national level - where gun lobbyists have found 58 senators and more than 100 House members to sponsor a bill weakening the 1968 Gun Control Act.
The diversity of people portrayed in the NRA ad campaign suggests that this well-funded group believes pro-gun sentiments lie in every segment of the American population. Picturing all-American type NRA members, from an eight-year-old BB-gun shooter to an astronaut, the ads are appearing this summer in magazines like Seventeen, Boy's Life, Better Homes and Gardens, Esquire, Business Week, and People.
The NRA hopes to build support as citizens identify with the ads, says NRA spokesman John Aquilino, who adds that today's ''tremendous consciousness of government regulators intruding in private lives'' is also an aid in building support for the NRA anti-gun control position.
''People think we're maniacs,'' says Richard Gentile, a Miami-area gun-shop owner who echoes the concerns of dozens of gun owners - from housewives to college professors.
Noting that he recommends all new gun owners take instruction and that he refuses to sell to ''suspicious'' customers, Mr. Gentile, a former engineer fascinated by firearms technology, explains that most of his customers are ''middle, upper-class Anglos'' with largely sport shooting interests in mind.
A University of Massachusetts, Amherst, study done for the Justice Department tends to confirm Mr. Gentile's observations and debunk the ''redneck'' image of gun owners. The study, which includes a review of most major gun research projects, confirms that:
* The nation's 180 million guns are distributed among 50 percent of American households.
* Gun ownership increases with social status.
* While 75 percent of all guns are bought for sporting purposes, the remaining 25 percent are purchased for self-protection. (Handguns account for 25 to 30 percent of total firearm ownership.)
Getting a dispassionate commentary on firearms, their abuse, and their control is nearly impossible because views on the volatile issue are so polarized. There are those who would ban all guns except those carried by the police and military, as compared with individuals who want no government control over guns at all. And each side has a statistic to counter every argument for or against.
Those who favor some form of control - registration, licensing, a waiting period between purchase and pickup of a gun, security checks on gun buyers - become the moderates on the issue.
Most polls suggest the majority of Americans are moderates, says James Wright , the researcher who directed the Amherst study. He uses the ''imprecise metaphor'' of automobile licensing and registration as the way most Americans feel about guns. ''Everyone's distressed (about gun and car-related deaths) but no one thinks they should ban ownership,'' he says.
''Locally that (attitude) is starting to change,'' says Sandy Horwitt, a spokesman for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. He cites the spate of municipal and state laws aimed at banning handguns or capping the number of them available. ''Gallup has found consistently that 60 percent of all people in urban areas favor a ban on handguns. National figures with an urban-rural mix get 40 percent for a ban.''
This apparent urban-rural split has helped perpetuate stereotypes of gun owners, associating the purpose of guns with a hard-core frontier spirit that may have no place in today's ''civilized'' world.
Most control advocates argue that rifles and shotguns still have a legitimate use in hunting and competition shooting. The concealable handgun is their primary target.
''John Hinckley couldn't have hidden a rifle and walked up to the President, '' says Pete Shields, head of Handgun Control Inc.
While the tougher pro-gun individuals might concede this point, they think it could backfire, leading to the ultimate confiscation of guns and the loss of what they believe is a constitutional right to bear arms. Many, like NRA spokesman Aquilino, can explain this in terms that seem politically logical - confiscation of firearms could more easily occur if a registry pinpointed who owned them all. Further, as long as criminals have access to guns, legal or illegal, they ask if arming one's home is not a legitimate right.
It's not easy for gun advocates to justify this so-called right when control groups point out the thousands of murders committed yearly with guns. However, pro-gun groups often advocate longer, more certain sentences for criminals who use guns. This, they say, would be more fair and effective than controls or bans on guns. Criminals, they add, are as likely to get guns through illicit means as through a legal process.
The Amherst study suggests there is no conclusive data to confirm a relationship between gun availabity and crime. A oft-made comparison is the high rate of gun-related murders in the US where there is no uniform gun control, and England's lower murder rate and stricter gun controls. NRA statistics show however, that Switzerland and Israel, with arms in nearly every household, have murder rates comparable to England.