Washington — John Warnock Hinckley Jr., charged with shooting President Reagan, had little more trouble buying his $47, .22-caliber revolver, than did Guiteau before shooting President Garfield or Gzolgosz, who shot President McKinley.
Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed President Kennedy, purchased his carbine through the mail for only $21.45.
Although pools for 50 years have shown the public wants handgun restrictions, the United States remains the only modern state where handguns in most jurisdictions can be purchased fairly simply. The US also has the highest murder rate.
The attempted assassination of Mr. Reagan, which left the President, his press secretary, a Secret Service agent, and a District of Columbia police officer seriously injured, is the latest and most dramatic episode in a series of events that has reopened with a vengeance the debate over gun control. There have been these developments:
* Handgun slayings of Dr. Michael Halberstam in Washington and singer-song-writer John Lennon in New York.
* FBI crime statistics show a murder every 24 minutes in the US -- with 21, 456 in 1979, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
* Chief Justice Warren Burger told the American Bar association Feb. 8 that America's "capability of maintaining elementary security in the streets, in schools, and for the homes of the people, is in doubt."
* Simultaneous issues of Time and Newsweek magazines March 23 featured stark pictures of handguns on their covers and analyzed crimes of violence. As long as Congress won't vote handgun control, said Time, "America will have to live with one of the world's worst murder records."
Statistics show that of the 33 men who have held the US presidency since 1835 , attempts were made against the lives of 10, and four succeeded.
The course of debate seems now to be following a channel deeply etched into the political landscape by similar debates in the past: expressions of shock and horror, revulsion against generalized "crime" in America, and efforts to get Congress to push gun control.
Some 60 million handguns are now believed scattered in the US, with 2 million to 3 million added each year. After the assassination of President Kennedy Congress passed a law banning import of so-called "Saturday night specials," cheap handguns. Gun distributors simply imported the parts rather than guns and assembled them in the US. In 1978 the US House of Representatives killed a bill to stamp serial numbers on new guns.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the major antigun-control lobby; it publicly emphasizes hunting, fishing, and wildlife management. But to its critics, the NRA seems to overly sensitive over the issue of concealable handguns.
President Reagan has been a strong supporter of the association against handgun registration. So was Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace who, as a presidential candidate, was shot and crippled in Maryland.
The NRA claims a million members and is able to mobilize a storm of protest letters to Congress whenever gun-control legislation is to be considered. Dr. Milton Eisenhower, head of a recent crime commission, wrote, "Every civilized nation in the world other than our own, has comprehensive national policies of gun control."
he added, however, that control advocates are attacked "by the rich and politically powerful National Rifle Association."
John M. Snyder, chief lobbyist for the pro-gun Citizens Committee for the right to Keep and Bear Arms, notes that there are strong anti-gun laws in Washington, D.C. Despite these, he adds, President Reagan was shot: "He is the most pro-gun President in my lifetime," he says.
By contrast, Nelson Shields, chairman of Handgun Control Inc., argues that local restrictions are ineffective if people can buy guns elsewhere.
John Hinckley allegedly bought two revolvers for $47 each from Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas last Oct. 13, merely showing a Texas driver's license and answering "no" when asked if he used narcotics, had been a felon, or been in a mental institution. Reportedly, he had been treated in the past by a psychiatrist.
Four days earlier, it appears, he had been arrested in Nashville, Tenn., when three pawnshop handguns were founds in his luggage on an A merican Airlines flight. He paid a fine and was released.