Street criminals are just as likely to use expensive handguns as they are to use cheaper pistols in the commission of a crime, according to a two-year firearm abuse study released yesterday.

The study was conducted by the Washington-based Police Foundation, a non-profit, privately funded organization engaged in law enforcement research. The foundation's report challenges the popular belief that violent street crime can be significantly reduced simply by outlawing the cheap handgun, such as the so-called "Saturday Night Speical."

Patrick V. Murphy, Police Foundation president, said the belief that a cheap pistol is the primary tool of the murderer, the robber and the mugger "is misleading and counterproductive and can confuse the police administrator in confronting the problem of firearm abuse."

Murphy said the foundation's findings suggest, "Much more can be done within the framework of current laws to curb firearm abuse."

The report is based largely on a sampling of police records of firearms confiscations in nine cities between 1974 and 1976. The cities are Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington. The foundation researchers reviewed the records of 5.547 seized firearms, 81.8 per cent of which were handguns.

Only 15.9 per cent of the sampled weapons were produced by companies primarily engaged in making cheap pistols - those described as costing $60 or less, the report said.

"Of the firearms in the samples, the brand confiscated most often with Smith & Wesson, a maker of moderate- to high-priced firearms," the report said. "In all, 626 of the 5,547 firearms, or 11.3 per cent, were made by Smith & Wesson.

"The second brand of firearms most frequently confiscated by police in the nine cities was Colt, also a maker of moderate- high-priced firearms. Of the 5,547 firearms, 617 or 11.1 per cent, were Colt products. Thus, almost one of every four confiscated firearms was a Colt or Smith & Wesson product," the report said.

The report said the foundation's findings indicate that "price is not a significant factor in the handguns used for the commission of crimes" because the weapons frequently are stolen.

"The apparent high volume of theft suggests that enough firearms are stolen each year from law-abiding citizens to fill most criminal needs," the report said.

Therefore, the report said, "The most realistic firearms enforcement efforts require federal law or federally mandated uniform state laws" in order to be effective.