Alexandria doesn't have to ask a gun-shy legislature for permission to run background checks on people buying handguns, since the city already has that authority.

That is the gist of a letter drafted in a Virginia House committee today as a proposed compromise over a provision Alexandria legislators want to write into their city's charter. The letter, written to Del. Bernard Cohen (D-Alexandria), is supposed to become "legislative history" and as such, provide unofficial sanction for the city's 37-year-old handgun ordinance.

But the promise of that letter from the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns did not satisfy Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), who wants the General Assembly to end uncertainty over the city handgun ordinance by providing specific authority in the city charter.

"I don't think the letter from a legal point of view is of any real value to us," said Mitchell, a former Alexandria vice mayor. "I don't think that is satisfactory or that it will solve our problem."

Alexandria has required a 72-hour background check on handgun purchasers since 1947. But a series of recent opinions from the state attorney general had led city officials to conclude that their handgun ordinance is on shaky ground.

The Alexandria charter bill, proposed by the City Council and introduced by the city's legislators in both the House and Senate, would have spelled out Alexandria's right to check handgun buyers for felony records and signs of mental instability. Although Mitchell's bill passed intact in the Senate last week, the state's strong gun lobby has been gearing up for battle in the House, preparing to pounce on the measure as the first step down the slippery slope toward gun control.

With the letter offered as a compromise, the House committee today struck the gun provision from the proposed charter bill. The same committee also eliminated a proposal for special transportation-taxing districts in the city, prompting Committee Chairman L. Cleaves Manning (D-Portsmouth) to describe the charter bill "as gutted."

Densely populated counties such as Arlington and Fairfax have been allowed to enact similar gun ordinances since 1944 but cities were never specifically given the same authority by the legislature. Some city officials have argued Alexandria has enough powers to regulate guns for the protection of its citizens.

While opposing specific legislation, gun supporters today were willing to allow Alexandria to continue running background checks on handgun purchasers. The city's gun ordinance has never been challenged in court and so far, has generated no opposition in Northern Virginia. Cohen argued today that without its gun ordinance, Alexandria could become the "gun capital of the East Coast."

Barbara Beach, assistant Alexandria city attorney, said, however, if a letter of "legislative intent" satisfies the General Assembly, it will probably satisfy the city. "We have always held the position that we had the power to have a gun ordinance. We just wanted to strengthen it. If they feel it is strong enough, I am sure the City Council will be pleased."