YOU MAY now add the top command of Washington's police department to the fast-growing number of law enforcement authorities in America who are calling for lifesaving help -- through tougher controls on handgun traffic. While the handgun-pushing publicists of the National Rifle Association try to trot out their own dwindling corps of authorities to mouth bullet-riddled platitudes about everybody's right to pack firearms, police on the front lines of crime wars have had it.

They don't pretend that controls will suddenly cut off the firepower that is blazing daily in the drug markets. They don't pretend, either, that the strict laws in the District of Columbia can do much in the middle of a gross national stockpile of firearms. D.C. police so far this year have confiscated 497 firearms, "more than a 50 percent increase" over the same period last year, according to Assistant Police Chief Isaac M. Fulwood Jr., second in command of the department. "Couple that with the increase in violence and narcotics trafficking -- that's alarming. It begs for some kind of resolution. D.C. has a strict gun control law but the absence of some kind of national control of firearms makes us look like we're just whistling in the wind. In other words, D.C. by itself can't solve the problem."

The NRA's diehard opponents of reasonable controls on concealable weapons would like you to believe that because police can't be everywhere and protect everyone, the next best thing for any citizen who wants one is a handgun ready to fight back. But how easily should anyone -- trained or untrained, sane or insane, with or without past criminal convictions -- be able to buy a handgun?

Some members of Congress who in the past have sided every time with the NRA's no-compromise stands on controls of handgun traffic are beginning to make important distinctions between the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the horrors of an uncontrolled handgun market. They don't swallow the old gun-lobby scare stories about how controls are all a plot to let the government or some evil global force come in and disarm all Americans and destroy the republic.

There can be reasonable debate and enactment of laws that would establish that this country's legitimate interests in firearms need not be a foolish love affair with deadly concealable weapons that kill more citizens than anywhere else in the world. That's why police are seeking support -- and consider stricter controls a matter of life and death.