As individuals who have had the privilege of serving as attorneys general, we watched with dismay as the congressional debate about the crime bill became increasingly partisan and divisive. This is not to say that we all agree on the difficult issues that defined the debate, such as habeas corpus reform or expansion of the federal death penalty. Our dismay, rather, has been directed at the failure to pass an anti-crime measure on which we all agree: the Brady bill's national waiting period and background check for handgun purchasers.

The Brady bill was a key part of the Omnibus Crime Control Act, which had been stalled by a Senate filibuster since November 1991 and failed to survive a cloture vote yesterday. It can, and still should be, enacted without delay.

Handgun violence in America is a national tragedy. According to the Justice Department, handguns are involved every year in more than 600,000 violent crimes, including an average of 9,200 murders, 12,100 rapes, 210,000 robberies and 407,600 assaults. Despite this record of mayhem, our laws continue to tolerate the instantaneous, over-the-counter sales of these deadly instruments of crime to anyone who can pay the price.

Handguns are sold to anyone who fills out a form denying that he or she is a convicted felon, drug abuser or other prohibited buyer. In most states, no one checks the veracity of the buyer's answers before the gun is sold. In short, we have an "honor system" for handgun sales in which those who already have committed serious crimes are trusted to tell the truth about their past.

In states that already have waiting periods, criminals attempting to buy guns have been stopped in their tracks. California, which has a 15-day waiting period applicable to all firearms, stopped more than 5,800 prohibited persons from buying guns in 1991 and another 1,300 during the first quarter of 1992. These prospective buyers included 760 people convicted of drug violations, 47 of homicide, 30 of sex crimes, 418 of burglary, 132 of robbery, 10 of kidnapping and 3,613 of assault.

Despite the proven success of waiting periods in states such as California, the black market in handguns will continue as long as other states permit "cash and carry" sales. It is hardly surprising that the handguns used in crime in cities and states with strict gun control laws originate in jurisdictions without such laws. A study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed that between 1987 and 1990, 94 percent of the guns used in crime in New York City came from out-of-state sources. The primary source states were Virginia, Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Ohio, all of which have weak gun laws. Only federal legislation will ensure that nowhere in our country can convicted felons buy handguns over the counter with no questions asked.

Of all the arguments advanced by opponents of the Brady bill, surely the most specious is the charge that it would infringe a constitutional right. For more than 200 years, the federal courts have unanimously determined that the Second Amendment concerns only the arming of the people in service to an organized state militia; it does not guarantee immediate access to guns for private purposes. The nation can no longer afford to let the gun lobby's distortion of the Constitution cripple every reasonable attempt to implement an effective national policy toward guns and crime.

Congress knows what needs to be done. It knows that, according to a Gallup poll, 95 percent of the American people want the Brady bill to become law. It knows that the Brady bill has been endorsed by every major police organization in the country. It knows that among its own members, the Brady bill enjoys remarkable bipartisan support. In May of last year, the Brady bill passed the House of Representatives by 53 votes; it later passed the Senate by a margin of 67 to 32 and was incorporated into the crime bill.

The questions now is whether Congress has the will to do what needs to be done. Since the crime bill filibuster began last November, thousands of Americans have lost their lives to handgun violence. It's time for Congress to pass the Brady bill and send it to the president. The American people have been waiting too long. Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Ramsey Clark, Elliot L. Richardson, Edward H. Levi, Griffin B. Bell, Benjamin R. Civiletti

The writers are former attorneys general of the United States.