LET'S NOT TALK about gun controls. We have all done that before -- and before that, and that, and that -- and it never has mattered much, because "gun controls" can mean anything or nothing. The people who know this best of all are those who make money in the great American handgun market -- from the big three firms of Smith & Wesson, Colt Industries and Sturm, Ruger & Co., on down to the foreign gun-parts importers, the pawnshop dealers and the street traders. They, along with the lobby organizations that would have us all believe that there's no difference between rifles and handguns, thrive on the vagueness of the phrase "gun controls."

Quick as a flick of the trigger, they can point out that here we all were in the District of Columbia, with one of the "toughest gun control laws in the country," and look what happened. That's right, because only minutes away, any deranged boob can rustle up a handgun from a roadside stand and drive it right in; or the same crazed person can buy one right here in the city, hot from any of the 50 states.

These same groups can tell you, too, that registering guns won't keep them out of the hands of killers or other criminals -- and that's right, too; sure, it can help trace a stolen gun or two, but when manufacturers are dumping more than two million new handguns onto the market every year, what difference does a permit make?

This is why the chief lobbyist for one of these groups with the conveniently broad names -- the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms -- isn't all that worried about congressional reaction to the latest assassination attempt on an American president. John M. Snyder predicts that the expected rush of activity in Congress will be nothing more than that -- and that once this flurry ends, Congress might even pass a bill sponsored by the National Rifle Association to weaken the enforcement powers of the government.

Keep all gun talk and control talk lumped together like this and, sure enough, Congress will either forget the whole subject (as it had after John Lennon, Michael Halberstam and all the other lives lost every day in handgun shootings) or pass some half-baked, ineffective measure.

On the opposite page today, James Q. Wilson and Mark H. Moore argue that efforts to eliminate or reduce the supply of handguns would be neither practically nor politically effective; they suggest tougher, more comprehensive and more sophisticated law enforcement. Out own prescription is different. We agree on the law enforcement aspects, but believe that handguns -- as opposed to long guns used by sportsmen or registered collections of pistols -- should be taken off the open market. Effective law enforcement should substitute for the mass arming of everyone in attempts at self-defense.

True, just as all the narcotics law in the world haven't stopped drug traffic, there is no way to stop handgun killings or assassinations of national leaders. But right now -- once again -- it is a question of focusing serious attention on the subject. And if this week's events do not do it, you have to ask yourself, what in God's name will?