It is difficult for many people to visualize a situation in which they would be willing to fire a gun at any human being under any circumstances. tOver the years, hundreds of you have told me so.

Each time a proominent person is shot, readers speak out against the violent world in which we live. They says things like, "Even if somebody were breaking into my house at night, I don't think I could shoot him. If there is time to reach for a gun there is time to dial 911, or to turn on some lights, or make enough noise to scare the burglar away."

The first news bulletin about the shooting of Pope John Paul II literally numbed my brain. I couldn't think, I couldn't understand. How could anybody fire a gun at this man of peace who spent a lifetime demonstrating his love and concern for all mankind?

In late December of last year, The Washington Post asked it foreign correspondents around the world to file reports on the gun laws in the countries to which they were assigned. Richard M. Weintraub of our foreign desk summarized their dispatches in a report that appeared on Dec. 21.

The gist of Weintraub's summary was that the possession and use of firearms is far more limited in most major industrial societies than in the United States.

In West Germany, one who wants to own a gun must prove a specific need, prove proficiency in the use of the weapon and pass an examination. In Japan, permission must be obtained from a local public safety commission, and it is never granted without a "strict" investigation. In Spain, "where controls are even stricter," licenses must be renewed each year. sFrance makes "an elaborate background check on every applicant." Britain issues virtually no licenses at all for private handguns.

Of Italy, Weintraub's report said: "Even Italy, which may have Europe's most chronic crime problems, imposes severe controls on those who are licensed to own a gun." Yet violent and irrational people in Italy and the world over continue to own guns and to have access to additional guns. For good measure, dynamite and other explosives and readily available.

The arguments for and against gun control have been repeated so often that most of us are tired of listening to them. Almost everybody has made up his mind, but fortunately there is wide disagreement among us.

Even those who have been sickened by an endless list of gun tragedies are divided. Some want to forbid all private ownership of guns. Others limit themselves to advocating strict controls on who may own a gun.

Hunter and target shooters seem united in their opposition to gun legislation, but even in their ranks opinion is divided. Somegun owners, including some members of the National Rifle Association, think we need stronger gun cotnrol laws. They say we should have passed strong laws a century ago, when the last frontiers were disappearing and we were becoming a nation of urban communities. If we had done that, we would have by this time established a strong antigun tradition. But many gun owners fear that the strengthening of present gun laws would lead inevitably to a ban on the private ownership of all guns, and their answer to that is: "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will own guns." Which is true.

So we remain stalemated, and each new act of barbarism stimulates the purchase of another million handguns by people who have never fired a gun and say they wouldn't shoot anybody under any circumstances -- yet sometimes end up shooting themselves or members of their own families.

Some day, somehow, we must find a way to escape from the tyranny imposed upon us by 100 million privetely owned guns. But how?

The assassins who aim at presidents and popes also shoot bystanders. Stray bullets kill people on crowded downtown sidewalks and people sitting in their own homes in quiet residential areas. Explosives planted in public places kill innocent victims by the dozen.

There must be an end to this madenss, and no organization is in a better position to break the impasse than the National Rifle Association. If the NRA were to propose a reasonable and effective program to control the ownership of handguns, Congress would pass it with a sigh of relief.

No legislation of any kind will guarantee an end to violence. But a good law could at least become a major step toward minimizing it.