POLL AFTER POLL shows strong and growing support for tougher laws to control the ridiculously free flow of guns in this country. But who among the candidates for president supports the most serious response?

So far Republicans have danced around the issue. Gov. George W. Bush's idea of protection from the terror of gunfire has been to sign a "conceal-and-carry" law and legislation limiting liability for gun manufacturers. Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker says the governor does not believe that licensing or registration would keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Other Republican stands vary in degrees of weakness. Elizabeth Dole has concluded that assault weapons have no place in society, that mandatory locks on guns would be good and that cop-killer bullets are bad, but she makes no proposals to put these positions into effect. That's about as courageous as Republican candidates seem to get on this issue. The easiest position to analyze is Dan Quayle's: He expressed hope that Littleton would not bring more gun control.

Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley both have far stronger proposals, each going beyond Clinton administration policy. The vice president, an early sponsor of the Brady background-check bill, has proposed a broad set of measures, including requiring state-issued photo licenses for all new handgun owners, mandatory reporting of gun sales to government authorities and banning the sale of cheap "junk guns." Mr. Bradley comes closest to getting a grip on this country's gross national proliferation of concealable weapons. He calls for registration of all handguns.

No presidential candidate has yet come out for the most effective proposal to check the terror of gunfire: a ban on the general sale, manufacture and ownership of handguns as well as assault-style weapons.

How radical is this? Seven years ago, when he proposed it, Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island said, "Well, I think to have the current situation is what is radical. No other country has anything like it."

As gun violence continues to spread from cities to suburbs to rural areas, public demands for safety ought to awaken politicians to the urgent need for relief from a bloody way of life.