EFFECTIVE MARKETING techniques pump a relentless flow of handguns into the District, shredding one of the country's strictest local gun bans. As reported by staff writers David B. Ottaway and Barbara Vobejda, thousands of illegal firearms are seized by District police every year. These weapons represent only a fraction of the weapons circulating in the city, where traffickers keep coming up with new ways to buy, sell, trade and retrade their guns.

Their businesses have always been blessed by the close presence of gun dealers in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. An analysis by this newspaper of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms database of guns used in crimes indicates that just over half the guns seized by District police were bought in the two states. Even with one-handgun-a-month purchase limits now in effect in both states, the illegal traffic continues -- not by the trunkload but in harder-to-detect packages of one or two. Drug dealers and other criminals are even pooling guns, stashing them at special drops for neighborhood use.

Another difficulty in stemming the supply of guns is that when arrests are made, D.C. prosecutors often drop the charges in exchange for information on other crimes. In addition, federal prosecutors note that judges in Superior Court have more leeway than federal judges to pass up prison time in gun cases. Still worse, law enforcement officials report that at least 75 percent of the weapons used in murders are never recovered.

Clearly judges could get tougher and law enforcement agencies could beef up their pursuit of gun traffickers. But piecemeal approaches to the terror of gunfire won't curb this country's murderous traffic in concealable weapons. A forceful stand would ban the general sale and ownership of handguns not just in the District or Maryland or Virginia but in America as a whole.