A GRAND JURY in New York has decided not to indict Bernhard Goetz, the man who shot four young men he thought were trying to rob him in a New York subway car, on an assortment of serious charges including attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment. It did indict him, however, on three lesser gun possession charges for which, if found guilty, he could yet go to prison. The panel's decisions are being celebrated as an "exoneration" of a figure who has become the centerpiece of an all-consuming social and moral debate centering on the question of self-defense and its flip side, "vigilantism." But there may be somewhat less here than meets the eye.

The grand jury, says the prosecutor, saw a videotaped confession to the shooting that, for some reason, Mr. Goetz gave police in New Hampshire when he turned himself in. In the videotape, Mr. Goetz said that when the youths approached him he feared being robbed and that he shot with intent to kill. Still, the jury did not hear or question Mr. Goetz himself; he decided not to testify. Nor did it hear the four young men he shot. To testify they would have exposed themselves to prosecution for assault against Mr. Goetz, and they chose not to. The four -- one remains in a coma -- all face other charges arising from previous entanglements with the law.

What this means is that the grand jury was not pronouncing a judgment on the merits of the shooting after having heard reasonably fully from both sides. It was simply saying it did not have sufficient evidence on which to base an indictment for the heavier offenses cited by District Attorney Robert Morganthau.

Explaining why the grand jury had indicted Mr. Goetz only on gun possession charges, Mr. Morganthau said the panel had relied on the law of justification, which permits a person to defend himself by force if he reasonably believes he may be hurt, killed or robbed. "It was the view of the grand jurors that Mr. Goetz was justified in taking the force that he did," he said. "I don't view this as license to shoot people because they look at you cross-eyed. Anybody who shoots another person on the subway or anywhere will have the case presented to the grand jury, and they will have to establish justification." This seems to us an essential warning for a prosecutor to underline and for the public to understand.

One can speculate that conviction of Mr. Goetz in a jury trial on murder or assault charges would have been problematical. The gun charges that he still faces, however, though less onerous, carry sentences of up to seven years. The law is necessarily applied in different ways in different cases, but the central consideration remains that, for everyone suspected of a crime in our society, the law must be applied.