HIGH PRICES of gold and silver have brought an epidemic of burglaries to the Washington area. It's being aggravated by intinerant dealers who come through town offering cash, on the spot, no questions asked, for gems and precious metals. They place large advertisements in newspapers like this one, and operate out of motel rooms. They buy the silver bars that may well have been someone's tea service or soup spoons. The dealers have no way of knowing what's been obtained legally. This traffic, carried on this way, is perfectly legal. It shouldn't be.

There's a vigorous effort under way throughout the area to tighten the requirements on these dealers. Some jurisdictions have already enacted ordinances, and others are rapidly following them. In Alexandria, to take one example, state Sen. Wiley Mitchell has drafted legislation requiring the dealers to get licenses, and to hold all purchases for 15 days after notifying police. But state legislation can't be put into effect until next summer at the earliest. In the meantime, Alexandria's City Council is rapidly proceeding with its own similar bill, on which it will hold hearings next Tuesday.

That's very helpful, as far as it goes. It will make the dealers identify themselves and report purchases to the police. But there's another step that the Alexandria City Council, and its counterparts throughout the region, might also want to consider.

The purpose here is to make a little less simple and safe for professional burglars to sell stolen goods. Following a rash of burglaries, police will find it useful to know which dealers are buying melted-down metal. But they would find it even more useful to have a look at the sellers. This legislation should require a 24-hour waiting period in any sale of precious metals or jewelry by anyone who is not a licensed dealer. When a person comes in off the street with a pocketful of silver bars, it is absurd to let him leave them on the counter, take immediate payment in cash and walk off. That's a positive invitation to housebreaking.

Instead, any sale should require a 24-hour waiting period -- with notification to the police. The seller would get a slip stating the nature of the sale -- with a duplicate to the police. The seller would then return the next day to deliver the metal and take payment. Perhaps he might find a policeman there to ask a few questions. That's a very minor inconvenience to legitimate owners and businesses. But for the thieves, it would take some of the simplicity and safety out of the disposal of stolen silver.