A few months ago, several students at Spingarn High School were examnining, an automatic pistol. The gun went off, killing a 16-year-old boy. e

Later, a student at Spingarn explained why his friends like to carry guns. In a front page story in Sunday's Washington Post, staff writer Pete Earley quoted him as saying:

"It's a fame thing. You carry a gun in your bag and you cool, man. You walk down the hall and you know that if anybody bumps you, you got a gun to do your talking. Guns is real big with the craps players. It's that whole underworld thing that people are into. Talking tough, acting tough, being a dude."

Then, too, there is a steady demand for guns from avowed criminals -- the men and boys who want guns they can use during the perpetration of robberies and burglaries. Yesterday's story told us how easy it is to buy or rent a gun in Washington, the city with the toughest anti-gun law in the nation. It told us how one illegal gun dealer rents pistols to baby-faced children as young as 12 and 13 so that "they can earn enough cash to buy their own piece."

The dealer recalled with a chuckle that one child who was about four feet tall didn't have the $10 rental fee, so he left his bike for collateral. If the boy does well in the robbery business and saves up $400, he'll be able to buy a .45 caliber submachine gun from the same dealer.

Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson says more juveniles than ever own handguns. Illegal gun trading is rampant on Washington's streets, but Jefferson thinks "the best way to reduce the number of guns in this city is by asking residents to surrender their handguns." But even the chief must know that it is unrealistic to expect criminals or macho high school dudes to turn in their guns voluntarily.

The simultaneous proliferation of guns and drugs threatens the safety of every city dweller. It has generated millions of comments, opinions and proposals, but no consensus.

Even if we were to impose severe penalties on the manufacture, transportation, importation, purchase, sale or possession of handguns, millions of illegal guns would remain a threat to honest citizens for many decades. Yet if we fail to pass some kind of federal law aimed at regulating the gun traffic, we are left with nothing better than Chief Jefferson's idea of calling out, "Turn in your guns, children, and play nice."

It is absurd to write strict gun laws for New York or the District of Columbia and then permit a river of illegal guns to flow out of permissive states like Virginia.

Not even federal gun laws would end crime, any more than drug laws end drug abuse or the Ten Commandments ended sin. But laws and Commandments do deter some potential sinners, and they do give us useful guidelines on what is socially acceptable conduct and what is not.

However, we need more than laws. We need an understanding of why some of us -- even children -- think it is so important to achieve a macho image. And from our understanding of antisocial conduct we must attempt to develop an antidote to it.

If we could learn to uproot hostility and violence from our culture, we might diminish our need for guns, and for anti-gun laws. And if we could end poverty, that would also help.

But we'd still be left with perhaps the biggest problem of all: providing everybody with an education.

The system we now have makes schooling available to all, but it educates only a select few.