THE ARGUMENT has been going around in circles for more than a decade. $1The National Rifle Association and other gun pushers insist, as the NRA did in a letter recently published on this page, that "prohibitive firearms laws . . . don't work." On the other side are those whose common sense tells them that a federal law stricktly limiting those who may manufacture, sell and possess guns would substantially lower this country's astronomical rate of violent crime.

The strangest thing about this ritual debate is that it has ignored evidence -- provided by the experience of other major Western industrialized nations -- that gun control laws do make a difference. Last Sunday, The Post carried a report from a number of its foreign correspondents describing the foreign gun laws, how they are enforced and what the resulting crime rates are. fIt told a revealing story.

Most other developed nations require a would-be gun purchaser first to obtain a license -- generally from the local police office. The requirements vary, but almost always involve a rigorous check of the applicant's background and police record and sometimes his or her mental health record as well. Licenses must be renewed regularly. In Great Britian and elsewhere, self-protection of personal property are not considered valid reasons for the granting of a license. In West Germany and Israel, applicants must pass tough examinations to prove experience and comptence in handling a gun. In Japan and elsewhere, the private ownership of handguns is simply forbidden.

Manufacturers are generally regulated so that their products can be controlled and more easily traced. Japan even requires that model guns -- which cannot harm by may be used to threaten -- be painted white or yellow so that potential crime victims will not be fooled. Gun dealers are also controlled, and the fine for selling to someone who does not possess a valid license is often more severe than the penalty for illegial possession.

In all the countries surveyed, gun control laws are national in scope, unlike in the United States, where more than 20,000 conflicting state and regional statutes -- some tight and some laughable -- make evaluation of any one law's impact impossible.

The crime rates in countries that combine strict laws with serious enforcement and tough sentencing show what can be achieved. In Great Britian, despite growing economic woes and racial tensions, the murder rate is one-tenth the U.S. rate. Among the United States' 220 million people, the number of violent crimes (murder, robbery and aggravated assault) involving a firearm last year was about 340,000. In West Germany, with 70 million people, the comparable number was less than 300. In Japan, with 115 million inhabitants, the figure was 171.

In all these countries there is, of course, an illegial gun trade. But in the most strictly regulated ones, that trade is largely the province of gansters who usually use the guns against each other. The laws do prevent the casual ownership of guns -- guns that kill children in accidents, spouses, spurned lovers and anyone else whom someone happens to be angry at. They also prevent gun ownership by any but the most determined and best-connected criminals. And they keep guns out of the hands of psychopaths, repeat offenders and everyone else who cannot present a good reason for needing one.

There is nothing magical or mystical about effective gun control. Nor is there any deep cultural reason why similar laws would not work in this country. tThough it will take some years to gradually gather up the vast number of guns now floating around, that is not an impossible task either. The lesson from abroad is that the United States could enjoy a violent crime rate one-tenth or one-hundredth as great as today's. All we have to do is choose to do it.