WASHINGTON -- An elderly widower shot a burglar to death recently and changed -- at least temporarily -- the terms of the debate over gun control.

The 83-year-old A.D. Parker, who lives alone in a modest San Francisco house, said he heard someone busting through his back door late one night, then heard the intruder nearing his bedroom.He reached under the bed where he kept an old .38 he hadn't fired in decades, and when the crowbar-wielding burglar was just outside his bedroom door, he fired once. The man fell, and Parker called 911.

Police soon arrived to haul away the body of 49-year-old Michael Moore.

I think it's fair to say that most gun-control advocates would favor legislation that would have made it difficult if not impossible for Parker to have had that gun under his bed that fateful night. After all, he had no license for the weapon and, by his own reckoning, he hadn't had anything remotely like target practice since he was about 17.

Gun-control advocates -- and I am one -- argue that protection against criminals is best left to the authorities, that amateurs with loaded guns around are more likely to harm themselves or family members than to stop an intruder.

We just don't like the idea of leaving armed defense up to individuals -- and not just 83-year-olds with guns.

A Norwalk, Conn., mother was arrested last week after she gave her two sons, aged 5 and 7, a hammer and a screwdriver to protect themselves from bullies at school. According to the police, the woman gave her boys the weapons because she believed "the children were being harassed on and off the school bus by another person."

The police declined to give further details, but I can imagine what one detail might have been: The boys and their mother thought the people responsible for protecting the children weren't doing a good enough job of it.

Both incidents took me back to my Mississippi childhood. My folks never shot any intruders that I'm aware of, but maybe part of the reason was that there weren't many intruders in those days, given the overwhelming likelihood that someone in the house had a loaded gun and was prepared to use it.

The Connecticut affair reminded me of some children at my elementary school who were known to keep sharp pencils and compasses for protection against bullies. These children, I seem to recall, were nearly always unpopular kids who were picked on for one thing or another. These youngsters -- usually poorly dressed or from the wrong side of the tracks -- could not always count on teachers to intervene on their behalf. The harassment usually stopped only after the victims made it clear they were prepared to take care of themselves.

The two recent incidents serve to make the point that gun-control opponents often make: that there are times when our protection is left up to us. I don't know many people who, facing what Parker faced the other night, would choose to be unarmed.

Of course there are other stories in the news that make the gun-control case. The death of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland at the hands of her gun-wielding 6-year-old classmate in Mount Morris Township, Mich., argues persuasively that something should be done to keep guns out of the hands of the young and irresponsible.

But what? President Clinton used the Michigan tragedy to press for legislation to require safety locks on new guns, ban the importation of high-capacity ammunition clips and require a three-day waiting period for background checks before taking delivery of weapons bought at gun shows.

These all strike me as sensible provisions, but only one of them -- a subsection of the safety-lock proposal that would require retrofitting of older weapons -- could conceivably have saved Kayla's life. And even with such a provision, who can suppose that the owner of the gun -- some guy living in the home of the boy's uncle, where the youngster was staying -- would have traipsed down to the local gun shop to buy a new safety lock?

Ultimately, though, safety locks, background checks, registration and the rest of it don't really get where a lot of us gun-control advocates want to go. We (or at any rate, I ) want to reduce the number of guns in circulation -- first by making it more difficult for non-law enforcement people to get them and then by collecting as many already-owned guns as we can. In general, I think we'd all be a lot safer with a lot fewer guns.

On the other hand, I'm very glad A.D. Parker was armed.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com