If Congress really wants to fight crime, emasculating controls on the interstate sale of handguns surely is not the way to do it. But that is exactly what the Senate did recently with the passage of a bill that will render toothless the minimal gun control laws we now have on the books. What these laws need is strengthening, not weakening.

Considering the grim statistics on handgun crime in America, the Senate's action is surprising. In 1980, there were more than 11,000 handgun murders in the United States -- as compared to four in Australia, eight in Great Britain and eight in Canada, each of which has a tough handgun control law. In 1983 handguns were used in 200,000 robberies and 120,000 aggravated assaults, and accounted for 44 percent of all murders. Even more alarming is the fact that while the Vietnam war claimed 46,121 American lives in the decade from 1963 to 1973, handgun murders killed more than 70,000 civilians back home in America.

But statistics cannot tell the whole story. Behind the numbers are thousands of personal tragedies, grieving families and shattered futures, brought about solely by reckless use of handguns by criminals. Our national memory is equally scarred by handgun-wielding assassins taking aim at our political leaders. Fortunately, presidents Reagan and Ford, as well as Gov. George Wallace, survived handgun attempts on their lives. Presidential Press Secretary James Brady barely did. Robert Kennedy, Allard Lowenstein and George Moscone did not.

Sadly, murder by handgun has become, in the words of one London newspaper, "a peculiarly American death."

So why did the Senate approve the bill weakening controls? Ostensibly to help out-of-state hunters and sportsmen who want easier access to weapons. But hunters have no use for handguns such as the easily concealed, snub-nosed "Saturday night special." Only criminals do. Loosening restrictions on such weapons defies reason.

While no one wants to inconvenience hunters and sportsmen, at the same time we don't want to make it easier for criminals, drug addicts, felons and mental incompetents to get their hands on a handgun. But with the bill passed by the Senate, all a criminal has to do is cross a state line and the snub-nosed gun is his.

It's no surprise that every major police organization opposes this bill. Last year, two-thirds of the American police officers who died in the line of duty were killed by handguns. A bill that would loosen restrictions -- making it easier for criminals to purchase a handgun -- can only add to the crime rate and increase the chance that murder, robbery and other violent crimes will jeopardize more lives.

There is a clear consensus in America that crime must be reduced. Last year Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act with just that purpose. One of its provisions called for strict prison sentences for persons who commit crimes while carrying firearms. What we really need are laws to prevent these crimes from happening initially -- after-the-fact prison sentences do little for the victims of crime. The Senate bill, however, only makes the fight against crime more difficult by affording potential criminals greater opportunity to commit a violent crime. Instead of giving law enforcement officials more tools to fight crime, this bill would end up giving criminals more tools to commit crimes.

Public opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans favors tougher gun control laws. So did the attorney general's 1981 Task Force on Violent Crime, which recommended a mandatory waiting period to enable law enforcement agencies to check the records of a prospective purchaser of a firearm.

To that end, I recently introduced legislation that calls for a reasonable waiting period. State and local laws with waiting periods have been highly effective: for example, two felons per week are prevented from buying handguns in Columbus, Ga., and in 1981, 1,200 felons were screened out in California. (In fact, had such a law been in place, John Hinckley might have been prevented from purchasing the handgun he used in his assassination attempt on President Reagan.)

A 1981 Gallup poll showed that 91 percent of Americans favor just such a waiting period. Americans are serious about fighting crime.

In America, we enact tough laws against drunk drivers and speeders because they cause highway deaths. We pass laws that crack down on drugs because they cause death and violent crime. Yet, if the bill passed by the Senate ever becomes law, we will be giving a free pass to criminals to purchase a gun.

For years opponents of gun control legislation have used the tired argument that guns don't kill, people do. But if the Senate's bill passes the House, more of the people who are likely to kill will find it easier to get their hands on a gun. It just doesn't make any sense.