MAYBE IT'S ALL the heat they're getting these days from people fed up with handguns in America, but lobbyists for the National Rifle Association seem to be losing their focus more often lately. So obsessed are they with handguns that they fail to make the reasonable distinctions between these deadly, concealed weapons and rifles, for which they're are accepted, legitimate sporting uses. Instead, the gun/rifle association's apoligists have taken to heavy-handed attempts to divert attention from the gun-making industry and all its indiscriminate sales of pistols.

As Exhibit "A" we submit in evidence a letter to the editior today from Neal Knox, in which we see the old, familiar -- and off-base -- cry that those who seek to end the open market on handguns and somehow soft on gun-wielding criminals. Perhaps we have not made ourselves clear enough, at least to Mr. Knox, on the subject of gun use in crimes; we join with Mr. Knox in supporting stiff punishment for people convicted of crimes involving handguns.

Tough punishment is one response to the proliferatcion and misuse of handguns -- but why promote the sale of these weapons in the first place? In Massachusetts, nearly six years after the state enacted a gun control law with a mandatory minimum jail sentence, results have been mixed. Police chiefs and law enforcement officials generally consider the law a success. But most are far stronger in their support of laws that would eliminate entirely the open market in handguns.

In the meantime, perhaps the NRA has more inside information on the background, rehabilitation and education of Abdul Hamid than did the judge who agreed to his release after three years in prison. Perhaps, too, Mr. Knox is unimpressed with the correspondence between this man and the judge, including one letter that said, "Throughout the siege of B'nai B'rith -- a situation in profound conflict with my sense of right and wrong -- the totality of my actions were orchestrated by those in command. . . ."

No one can guarantee that any convict returned to society has been punished enough, or will never threaten society again. But Mr. Knox might have noted that the release of the man in this instance was an exception in the Hanafi Muslim hostage cases; the same judge refused requests by four others to reduce their lenghtly prison terms, concluding that the sentences -- ranging from 28-to-84 years to 77-to-234 years -- were "just and should not be disturbed."

Criminals with guns are a menace, all right -- but the manufacture, promotion and free flow of handguns in America have reached insane proportions that only congressional attention can hope to stem.