WHEN YOU TALK handguns nowadays, it pays to get quickly to the point, because most people have had or have dished out an earful or two on this subject. So on to ours for the day: Massachusetts has a law requiring prison for anyone caught carrying a gun without a permit. This same get- tough approach is part of a federal bill now before Congress and will be introduced as a state measure in the next session of Maryland's legislature. It can work--and should be given the chance.

Now, for those interested in elaboration, these considerations: people may argue about precisely how effective the Massachusetts law has been in curbing assaults or deaths with various weapons other than guns--but the law has worked since it went on the state books in 1975. The number of gun deaths declined dramatically right away, according to one study--down by 43 percent in the first two years. Armed robbery dropped by 35 percent, assaults with guns by 19 percent.

Long, mandatory minimum sentences are not the idea, nor should they be; in Massachusetts, the minimum has been a one-year term that may not be suspended. It could be shorter than that, perhaps, but just as certain. Anything more stringent is likely to result in reduced charges or other mitigating actions by police or courts. Yes, determined criminals will still do as they please. But if anyone else--including those who have never had criminal intentions but who have had guns and used them in arguments--even hesitates before taking to the streets with a gun, it will be a blow struck for safety, not to mention national sanity.