Washington — Handgun control -- one of the most emotional issues in this year's election campaign -- is attracting support from presidential candidates and from financial contributors in inverse proportion to its apparent support from the American public.
While national opinion polls consistently show 70 to 80 percent of the population favor tighter federal curbs on handguns, 78 percent of the major White House hopefuls -- seven out of nine -- oppose them or equivocate on the question.
The disparity in campaign money is even greater: Nearly 99 percent of the funds in electoral war chests on the issue has been raised by handgun-control opponents.
The volatile issue already has punctuated the young presidential campaign in the form of candidate meetings, advertising blitzes, and bumper stickers during the nominating races in Iowa, Minnesota, and New Hampshire.
The high profile of gun-control opponents on the campaign trail, however, belies their low standing in the polls. A Gallup Poll last month found 75 percent of Americans (and even 65 percent of gun owners) want tougher licensing laws for handguns -- a large majority that has held steady since at least the mid-1960s.
The lineup among presidential contenders is just the reverse.
Five of the six Republicans -- George Bush, John Connally, Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and Ronald Reagan -- flatly oppose more restrictive gun laws.
(Some gun groups harbor reservations, however, about former representative Bush for having voted for the last federal gun control law in 1968 )
Two of the three Democrats, President Carter and California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., are regarded by gun-control advocates as having backed away from earlier support for new curbs.
In the President's case, after a strong gun-control stance in the 1976 campaign, he has failed to follow through by proposing new legislation or to mention the issue so far in his reelection race.
Governor Brown, after signing into law in California stricter handgun requirements, now denounces gun controls as "the opening wedge" of government over-regulation.
The only two consistent proponents are Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois.
Financially, foes of gun control are outdrawing defenders in campaign money by a margin of 80-to-1.
Three national campaign committees of gun owners have collected for the 1980 election a combined total of $683,669, while the single counterpart among gun-controllers has raised only about $8,500, according to latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The funds to combat gun controls have been amassed by the Sacramento, Calif.-based Gun Owners of America Campaign Committee (376,199), the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund ($220,175), and the right to Keep and Bear Arms Political Victory Fund of Bellevue, Wash. ($87,295).
None of the money has yet been contributed to any presidential candidates, but the NRA fund has channeled $13,850 to three state gun groups occupied chiefly with opposing Senator Kennedy.
"Our sole objective," Neal knox, the NRA's chief political strategist, has said, "is to defeat Kennedy in the primaries . . ."
The lone campaign committee working for gun control is the first on this side of the issue.
Formed six months ago by the Washington-based Handgun Control, inc., it hopes to eventually build a treasury of $200,000 for this election.
That would be less than one-sixth of the nearly $1.3 million that gun groups spent during the last national election campaign two years ago.
The handgun control committee so far has contributed $1,000 each to Senator Kennedy and Representative Anderson.