GET READY FOR the return of the household handgun in Washington -- it may again be in vogue or at least legal, in the District. Through Maurice Turner, Mayor Barry's nominee for police chief, hasn't even taken over his new office yet, he's already criticizing the city's staff handgun law, noting that it doesn't stop criminals from getting guns.

That's at once true . . . and wrong: of course criminals can get guns easily. Those insanely convenient stop-and-shop gun marts in Virginia are only minutes away, and nobody frisks you when you come back over the bridge into the city. But this argues for tougher laws around the city -- and throughout the whole country, for that matter.

Besides, even the police chief-designate says the law has reduced the number of handgun assaults among relatives and friends (if one can accurately term a shooting during an argument as having been "among friends"). And for every instance in which somebody has successfully used a gun to ward off a would-be burglar or assailant, there must be countless woundings and killings -- accidential or the result of a dispute.

The stories vary, but there's a new version somewhere everyday. One cheery little example came over the wires just the other day from Ohio, about a 15-year-old girl who told her mother to "close your eyes, I have a surprise" -- and then shot her. At a hearing before the girl pleaded guilty to a delinquent murder charge, the father said he had taught his daughter to defend herself, advising that "an empty gun is a useless gun."

Oh, sure, guns don't kill people. But perhaps fewer people would kill people if Congress would enact a reasonable compromise gun bill now before the members. Not only would it provide mandatory minimum sentences for anyone using or carrying a gun during the commission of a felony, but it would also totally ban Saturday night specials, which no serious hunters or collectors care for; require a 21-day waiting period before the purchase of any other handgun; and require better record-keeping of sales, thefts and losses.

With these protections in place across the country, legitimate gun owners and collectors -- along with anybody else, for that matter -- would not be unduly restricted; on the contrary, they might well be a great deal more free -- a live unthreatened by gun-wielding criminals. But until such a national law is enacted, local areas such as Washington should keep on doing their best to stem a terrible tide.