THE TOP BRASS of America's gun-makers can come out of their bunker now -- the heat's off for a while. Thanks to the political influence of the lobbyists they so generously support in the National Rifle (make it read Gun) Association, state lawmakers are slinking away from efforts to enact any effective measures that might slow down the citizens' arms race. Be it Annapolis or Richmond, whatever public worry there may be about the runs on guns in these two states so far has failed to touch enough of the legislators to make a difference this year.

For a while, when a few better-known public figures were being shot to death, there was some reason to believe that maybe the growing anxiety about guns all over the place -- in the hands of the crazed, the criminal and the frightened amateur -- might translate into serious assaults on handgun traffic. But in Virginia, one of America's leading pistol markets, anything resembling statewide protections against indiscriminate handgun sales was quickly killed; only one modest simplification of the permit process got a nod from the legislature. In Maryland, where handgun purchases rose 10 percent last year -- to nearly 28,000 weapons -- hearings have been held on various bills that would impose tough sentences on illegal pistol-carriers as well as those who use guns in the commission of crimes; but so far, the testimony of gun victims' families seems to have fallen on deaf ears in the committees from which support is essential.

All of this is music to the ears of those who make, sell and glamorize the Great American Pistol as everybody's answer to everybody else's threat. Without constant constituent pressures on politicians, the gun lobby wins again. So long as handguns are made and sold for general use and abuse throughout the land -- cleverly lumped in with the legitimate desires of people to own and use sporting rifles -- the rifle/gun association will continue working to pull the strings in the state capitals on behalf of looser pistol laws.