IT IS STRONG, it is drastic and it is a serious response to the constant terror of gunfire that grips more Americans every day: Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island is proposing a national ban on the sale, manufacture or ownership of handguns. "I hear people say it's a radical proposal," the senator said in Providence the other day. "Well, I think to have the current situation is what is radical. No other country has anything like it." This situation, as Sen. Chafee points out on the opposite page today, is nothing less than slaughter by concealable firearms -- killing in record numbers, threatening education and pushing the high costs of health care even higher. The already-immense number of handguns in the United States -- currently 66 million -- is rising by a stunning 2 million every year.

Sen. Chafee's bill would establish a grace period during which handguns could be turned in to any law enforcement agency for reimbursement. There would be exceptions for federal, state and local law enforcement and military agencies, for collectors of antique firearms, for federally licensed handgun sporting clubs operating under certain safety procedures, and for security guard services and licensed dealers, importers or manufacturers that are determined to be serving these needs.

It is safe to say that the senator's bill will spark no stampede of colleagues to cosponsor it. The National Rifle Association's all-guns-are-great lobby will have a field day with it too; no doubt it will cite its longtime belief that all proponents of efforts to stem this country's incredible traffic in firearms are part of a movement to disarm loyal citizens, overturn the Constitution and ensure the absolute power of any crazed government to stomp on a helpless citizenry. Moreover, gun-control advocates who believe in more moderate measures -- waiting periods on handgun purchases and bans on the sales of assault weapons -- are worried that the new proposal will hinder their efforts.

But there is no reason for any thoughtful lawmaker to forsake immediate, workable measures already before Congress merely because another proposal has been introduced. Besides -- here is the basic point -- why should this country load up on concealable weapons? "Unless we get handguns off the street, out of homes and out of schools, we will continue to kill ourselves in larger and larger numbers, at younger and younger ages, and at greater and greater human and financial cost," Sen. Chafee says. In all too many neighborhoods in this city and in others across the country, the senator's words are not speculation, but cold fact.