IN HIS State of the Union address last month, the president announced that Attorney General Richard Thornburgh would soon convene a summit conference on violent crime. While a meeting of this kind is hardly a dynamic or imaginative response to one of the nation's most serious problems -- kind of a more elevated version of forming a study commission -- it certainly can't hurt to get together 300 or so of the country's leading experts on crime for an exchange of ideas. The meeting has now been scheduled for the first week of March. There's a lot of material to be covered here -- everything from child abuse to managing the prison population -- and only two days for discussion. In spite of these limitations, we believe that greater emphasis should have been placed on one subject that the police have consistently highlighted as central to combating violent crime: gun control.

Conference organizers have set aside an entire afternoon for a discussion of the death penalty, habeas corpus restrictions and exclusionary rule changes. These are hotly contested, politicized matters that are high on the administration's agenda. But the average citizen and the typical policeman are far less imperiled by the number of petitions a prisoner is able to file in court than by the proliferation of handguns and -- worse -- automatic weapons on the street. The conference agenda has not a single panel discussion among the dozens scheduled labeled "Gun Control." Justice Department planners do point out that one subgroup meeting, titled "Targeting the Armed Violent Offender" will consider, among other things, gun control laws in New Jersey and Virginia and the implementation of a new federal law designed to keep felons from purchasing guns. That's fine as far as it goes. But we hope that participants bring up the urgent need for gun control in other contexts and wherever it might fit in during the two-day discussions.

It's useful to look at existing state laws and present the effective ones as models. But in the long run, only national controls will do the job. Waiting periods before purchase and effective bans on automatic weapons should be priority objectives for Congress. Conference participants could do a great service by highlighting this issue and supporting strong legislation.