THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENTS Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports that its year-long effort to reduce the number of guns and gun-related crimes in Washington has had an effect. Its figures don't all add up, but ATF director of Rex Davis' summary claim, that "crime guns and explosives, and the people who use them, are being taken off the streets at an accelerated rate," seems acceptable. ATF doubled the number of its agents on Washington streets. The agents have visited gun dealers and checked their books to make certain that their sales are in conformance with the Gun Control Act of 1968. They have also been tracing more of the guns used in crime and have tried to make their presence felt among the gun-abusing underworld.

The question remains whether ATFs resources are being applied in the most useful way. This is a significant question, since ATF is the only federal law enforcement agency with a mandate to concern itself with commercial gun traffic. In an exhaustive gun-market study not long ago, the Police Foundation found that ATF is not very aggressive about demanding information from the major gun manufacturers that might shed light on how guns are stolen and diverted into the[WORD ILLEGIBLE] market. Furthermore, the study disputed ATF's assertion that cheap handguns are the principal weapons in gun abuse. Just as in the legal market, "quality" products of the major manufacturers predominate in the criminal market, according to the Police Foundation.

This suggests a parallel with drug enforcement. Just as the focus there moved from street "pusher rings" to the "kingpins" of organized crime to pursuit of drugs at their source in Turkey, Mexico and Southeast Asia, so there now must be a focus on the way such major manufacturers as Smith & Wesson and Colt handle their products. ATF's reluctance to "inconvenience" such firms is an attitude overdue for change. One change would be to require arms makers to standardize their serial numbers, two manufacturers can now put the same number on two guns, or numbers so similar as to make tracing of some guns almost impossible. And ATF has been reluctant to pry into the shipping and distribution practices of the gun makers to determine how so many guns "leak" into the illicit market.

This is not to suggest that ATF's "street" approach is not helpful to this community. It's just that it is hard to see how street enforcement in one city, or even in a lot of cities, will do very much in the long haul to get to the real causes of the enormous national commerce in handguns.