SIX WEEKS before the District launched its guns-for-cash exchange program to get illegal weapons off the streets, the House voted during debate on proposed national gun-control legislation to allow D.C. residents to carry concealed weapons and to keep handguns in their homes.

The vote was another encroachment on the right of District residents to make their own decisions. The House went a giant step further, however, by interposing a shocking idea on a city sickened by gun violence. By 213 to 208, the House voted to override the District's 23-year-old gun ban and allow citizens to arm themselves in their homes as well as carry unloaded concealed guns through the streets.

The provision, sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), was the answer to a criminal's prayer. No more prowling the streets to find a gun to buy or steal. Under the Hunter amendment, a crook in want of a gun need look no further than the closest home. The measure was also a clear threat to any D.C. household with a troubled teen.

Fortunately, the bill carrying the Hunter amendment was scuttled, thus leaving the city's anti-gun law intact. Still, a House majority was recorded in favor of letting the District arm to the teeth.

That makes it all the more important for Operation Gun Tip, the gun buy-back program launched by the D.C. police yesterday, to succeed. The goal is to purchase 1,000 handguns, assault weapons or other illegal firearms turned in at the city's seven police district headquarters. A guns-for-cash exchange program run earlier this month in Northeast was considered by police to be an unqualified success. An ecstatic D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said of the 6th District program, which netted about 600 weapons, "Any time you get guns off the street, several people's lives have been saved."

District police put their lives on the line daily chasing gun-toting criminals. They confiscated 2,000 guns last year. They also know what it means to reduce the availability of lethal weapons. Fewer guns mean fewer police shootings, gun accidents and gun violence. District authorities see the wisdom of not loading up the city with more firepower. Why can't the House?