GOV. CHARLES ROBB has prepared for consideration by the Virginia legislature a set of anti-crime proposals that includes a bill on armor- piercing bullets. Before introduction, these proposals were circulated to a number of interested individuals and groups--among them the National Rifle Association--for comment. Of two alternative ammunition bills considered, the NRA opposed one and supported the other, and the governor decided to include the latter in his legislative proposal. Does this mean he has sold out to the gun lobby or that he has allowed the NRA to dictate his actions in this politically explosive field? No--the story is much more complicated.

In 1971, the Justice Department funded research that led to the development of a synthetic fiber called Kevlar. In addition to being light and flexible, vests made of Kevlar have proved to be extraordinarily resistant to bullets. The Justice Department estimates that in the last seven years, the use of this soft body armor has saved the lives of 400 police officers. It has always been clear, however, that a number of factors influence the measure of protection provided by these garments. The vests are made in a variety of thicknesses and weights. Some ordinary bullets will penetrate some vests depending, among other things on the length of the gun barrel, the velocity of the bullet and the distance from the target. In addition, a new plastic-coated bullet known as the KTW has recently been developed. It will penetrate armor, and it is not generally used for hunting purposes. What is the best way for law enforcement authorities to deal with this problem?

After two days of hearings last May before the House crime subcommittee, legislators were unable to agree on a definition of armor-piercing bullets, possession of which would be a crime. Formulating a definition in a way that will not include ordinary hunting bullets in some circumstances is a difficult task. Both the Justice and Treasury departments are working on it, but no federal legislation has been enacted. Virginia Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, who prepared Gov. Robb's crime package, consulted with these federal officials and instead of attempting to ban possession of a broad and vague category of ammunition decided to offer a bill making it a crime to possess or use such ammunition in the course of committing or attempting to commit a violent offense.

The bullet would have to be plastic-coated, such as the KTW, or be constructed without lead or a lead core. The use of such a bullet in the course of committing a violent crime would incur an additional mandatory penalty. Simple possession of a bullet that might pierce armor would not be an offense unless the owner used it in the commission of a crime. An alternative proposal outlawing possession of certain brands of bullets, like the KTW, will also be considered by the Virginia legislature this year.

Even though this proposal might not cover ordinary hunting ammunition that can, in fact, pierce armor, the bill, like the governor's proposal, would be a good first step toward controlling these specially powerful and dangerous bullets.