FIVE THOUSAND guns -- it's an amount that conjures up several images: arms for half a U.S. Marine division or an arsenal large enough to topple some small distant government. Unfortunately, we refer to something very close to home -- the startling number of weapons, handguns mostly, confiscated by D.C. police since January 1989. The illicit drug trade is certainly a factor in the Washington murder rate, which has soared since 1987. But the D.C. homicide investigation branch always refers first to the arsenal on the streets.

In nearly 80 percent of the homicides committed here, the weapon is a handgun, and there is a frightening variety of killing tools -- from small .25 caliber revolvers to MAC-10s and Tech 9s with 30-round magazines. The killers often discard their guns after their deeds, knowing more are easily obtained. Many of the murder victims in Washington are other criminals who were also armed with handguns.

The gun lovers who resist any kind of controlling legislation often point to the District's remarkably stringent law and its murder rate, and they reach the seemingly logical conclusion that gun laws don't work. But a local law can be rendered meaningless when sophisticated weaponry can be quickly obtained and smuggled in from surrounding jurisdictions, as is the case here.

What's needed is national legislation. There are House bills that should be enacted. One would ban military-style assault weapons. The other, the Brady Bill, would require a national seven-day cooling off period for the purchase of handguns. Police officers nationwide, and those putting their lives on the line every day to make the nation's capital a safe place, have been imploring the House leadership to schedule a vote on the Brady bill, but it keeps pointing to other business. Unless they relent, the whole process will have to start over again when the new Congress convenes next year. How many more deaths will occur in the meantime?

Some officials might have first believed that the city's homicide rate could be lowered by directing most efforts to curtailing the illicit drug trade. There appears to be evidence of some success against drug trafficking. Both here and nationally, cocaine prices have nearly doubled -- a sign, some suggest, of declining supply. Purity levels are down, too, and D.C. narcotics officials also report a welcome drop in the number of open-air drug markets. But the carnage continues and will go on ... until something is done about the guns.