According to the Department of Defense, 56.962 Americans dided in the Vietnam War. Our nation says "Thank God that's over." And, "Never again." But few Americans realize that during those same years of bloodshed in Vietnam more Americans were murdered here "at home" by handguns. And that is handguns -- not hunting rifles. And, murders -- not accidents.

Over the last decade America's handgun war has escalated, fueled by expanded handgun production and an insatiable demand for these deadly weapons. The resulting handgun body count also mounts, adding to the roll of handgun-dead Americans from all walks of life, from all races and ethnic backgrounds, from all ages -- even children.

The year 1978 was no exception. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed, wounded or threatened with handguns. The domestic arsenal of concealable handguns topped the 50 million mark. It was the 10th anniversary of the handgun murder of Robert F. Kennedy. The mayor of San Francisco was slain by handgun. And, in 1978 President Carter's handgun-control bill -- drawn from a campaign promise -- was quietly buried at the White House.

And what about the American people? One would think that, with the rush to cut taxes and cut government spending, the support for national handgun control would diminish.Not so. Two national polls -- the Harris Survey and the Cambridge Reports -- indicated that popular support for intelligent handgun control was at an all-time high.

The findings of the Cambridge poll were particularly striking because they covered a variety of approaches to addressing the handgun problem. The poll showed that:

88 percent favor a waiting period before a handgun can be purchased to allow for a criminal-records check.

81 percent favor the strengthening of rules for becoming a commercial handgun dealer.

85 percent favor a crackdown in illegal handgun sales.

82 percent favor requiring prospective handgun purchasers to get a permit for a license to purchase a handgun; 71 percent of handgun owners favor the same.

84 percent favor requiring the registration of all handguns at time of purchase or transfer; 74 percent of all handgun owners favor the same.

79 percent favor requiring a license to carry a handgun outside of one's house or place of business; 62 percent of handgun owners favor the same.

70 percent favor the banning of the future manufacture and sale of small, cheap, low-quality handguns.

Despite popular support for handgun control, the killings go on, and corrective legislation gets buried as well.

The new year's headlines already capture our handgun madness:

"Woman Shot to Death -- Boyfriend Surrenders"

"Supermarket Owner is Killed in Robbery"

"Elgin Shooting Fatal for Six-Year-Old Girl"

These headlines especially affect me since my son was once one of them. Nick was the last victim -- by handgun -- in the San Francisco "Zebra" killings. Yet his headline is now forgotten as are the tens of thousands of other headlines about handgun murders and shootings.

We are living in a society of uncontrolled handguns, whose users can strike at any place and any time. Shoot-outs with the intensity of that of the fight at the O. K. Corral happen on buses, on street corners, in homes, at work, even at schools. Shoot-outs occur over traffic accidents, a parking place, a few dollars or a telophone bill. Handguns seem to have become the quickest way to settle an argument.

There are extremes in the debate on what to do. Some say that the ideal situation would be to ban all civilian possession of handguns by stopping their production and confiscating all those currently in existence. After my son's death, I was one of those. But, under our democratic system and with the competing interests in our nation, that is not politically realistic, practical or enforceable. The American people do not want and would not support such a law.

Then there are those gun zealots who not only want no new law, but seek to repeal even existing handgun-control laws as well. That is insanity.

There is a middle road that is fair to law-abiding handgun owners and the majority of us who are not handgun owners. It seeks to bring some 20th-century responsibility and accountability to a weapon with a frontier tradition. And most of it is drawn from common sense.

Doesn't it make sense that we stop the production of a handgun that has no use in sport, but is a favorite in crime -- the so-called Saturday Night Special? Doesn't it make sense that a would-be purchaser of handguns be checked out to be sure he doesn't have a criminal record, a history of mental illness, or is underage? Doesn't it make sense that those who deal in or own handguns be responsible for the proper care, use and disposition of those weapons?

Doesn't it make sense that the Department of Justice -- the nation's law-enforcement agency -- administer handgun laws and recommend to the Congress any additional controls? Doesn't it make sense that we limit the number of handguns a person can buy at one time? Doesn't it make sense that we have mechanisms to trace handguns used in crime and to identify the illegal sources of those weapons for the criminal?

None of these controls would deny anyone's perceived right to purchase or own a handgun. None of these controls would stop the hunter or sportsman from enjoying his recreation. These controls would not lead to a totalitarian state or a communist government.

But these controls would place some 20th-century responsibility on handgun ownership and handgun commerce, and would treat the handgun as the deadly weapon it is. Most important of all, they would reduce the number of handgun deaths and needless suffering.