NEW YORK, AUG. 22 -- Three-year-old Octavia Brown was in critical condition today after being hit by a stray bullet fired in a drug dispute Tuesday night on a Brooklyn street. She was the seventh city toddler shot at random in the last four weeks.

The child was the most recent young victim of escalating violence, much of it involving youths brandishing illegal handguns, that has shocked the city this summer and spurred politicians to search fruitlessly for solutions.

The 3-year-old was visiting the East New York neighborhood with her mother when a dispute over drugs erupted on a nearby street corner.

"One of the disputees was fleeing, and shots were fired at him, which apparently missed him," said Lt. Robert Ceccarini of Brooklyn's 75th Precinct, where the incident occurred. "One of the bullets struck the child in the back and passed through her body."

The girl's parents drove her in their car to nearby Brookdale Hospital, where she remains in the intensive care unit in serious condition.

Within hours, police arrested Rudolph Hinds, 15, and charged him as an adult with two counts of first-degree assault, two counts of weapons possession and one count of reckless endangerment.

In Brooklyn the same night, a father of four was shot to death, apparently after making a remark to a woman sitting on an apartment stoop.

Such arbitrary violence is becoming so common that even the shooting of Octavia Brown was virtually ignored by city tabloids, which had described in detail the first four in a succession of bizarre shootings involving children 3 years old or younger.

On Aug. 12, 3-week-old Rauni Rosa was asleep in his crib when he was killed by a bullet accidentally fired from a gun being cleaned by his father in a Bronx apartment.

Pierre LaRoche, five months, was asleep in his grandmother's arms when a bullet flew through the wall of his family's Bronx apartment Aug. 6. He was hit in the head and seriously wounded.

Sixteen-month-old Jonathan Gomez was shot and wounded by a robber in the Bronx Aug. 4 while his father held him. The child was struck when a bullet passed through his father's wrist.

On July 30, Rayvon Jamison, 9 months old, was toddling in his walker in his grandmother's Bronx apartment when bullets tore through the door, hitting him in the head and near the heart, killing him.

Ben Williams, 3, was asleep on a pullout couch in the living room when gunmen pumped more than 18 rounds of bullets through the door of a Brooklyn apartment July 26, killing the child instantly. The gunmen were said to be pursuing his half-brother, who had fled to the apartment to escape rival drug dealers.

On July 24, Yaritimi Fruto, 1, was shot in the head by gunmen who fired into the car being driven by her father through Brooklyn, on his way to criminal court to surrender himself for weapons possession. Both were killed.

Under pressure to respond to the lawlessness, Mayor David N. Dinkins (D) has announced that the financially strapped city plans to hire 1,058 more police officers, requiring cutbacks in other city services. An amnesty program encouraging people to turn in illegal guns has netted 23 weapons since Aug. 8, said Detective Armando Flores, who answers the program's telephone hotline.

"I was surprised to get even that many," he said, "especially the way things are today."