Handguns are used to kill 10,000 a year in the United States and also are used in another 500,000 crimes of violence, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts -- brother of a murdered president -- told Congress here, a year after the murder attempt on President Reagan.
Rep. Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, joined Mr. Kennedy of the Senate Judiciary Committee in pleading for tighter control of the public sale of short-barreled revolvers, or ''snubbies,'' a frequent weapon contributing to the unprecedented US murder rate -- a wonder to Canadians and Europeans.
The two legislators were among several witnesses testifying at hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on criminal law, chaired by Sen. Charles Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland. The hearing focused on past and present attempts to control handguns, as well as ways to close what some see as loopholes in the existing law.
One of the items discussed was a bill introduced by Senator Kennedy and Representative Rodino. Among other things, the bill would: ban the manufacture, sale, and importation of so-called ''Saturday night specials'' (the definition is based on weight, length, and caliber of the handgun); impose a minimum jail sentence for carrying a handgun during the commission of a felony; require manufacturers to keep records on all handgun transfers; require preclearance procedures, including a 21-day waiting period, for the sale or transfer of handguns; and prohibit pawn shops from dealing in handguns.
A spokesman for the 2 million-member National Rifle Association (NRA) -- the nation's most powerful lobby against gun control -- defended the right of sportsmen to have access to firearms.
NRA spokesman Neal Knox denounced as ''appalling'' the fact that the subcommittee ''has chosen to focus its time, energies, and efforts on futile attempts to declare one type of firearm evil over another type under the guise of controlling crime.''
In a confrontation similar to those Congress has seen for 30 years, Chairman Mathias declared ''handgun violence has increased at an alarming rate over the past two decades'' while Mr. Knox retorted that ''gun laws don't work: Any form of restrictive law aimed against guns is a misguided, misdirected, misappropriation of public funds and a futile effort to reduce crime.''
Kennedy, who helped pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, said that restrictive law has been thwarted by loopholes. Instead of the 31 million handguns circulated in the early 1970s, there are 60 million estimated today. At present 2.5 million new handguns a year are added to the national stockpile, he said. By the year 2000, he said, there will be enough to arm every third American.
The 1968 law banned importation of Saturday night specials. But some manufacturers started making guns here. A stronger law passed the Senate in 1972 but was defeated in the House, opposed by the NRA. Individual US communities are now passing anti-handgun ordinances, but Mathias recalled that the weapon used against Reagan was purchased in Texas and used in the District of Columbia. Federal control, he said, is necessary.
Duke University Prof. Philip J. Cook testified that opinion polls show a big majority favor handgun control. Some 21 states, with 60 percent of the population, he said, have restrictive ordinances. The issue is basic to crime control, Rodino argued. Dr. Milton Eisenhower, he noted, chairman of the first National Crime Commission, said you can't cut the murder rate without reducing handguns.
Lloyd Cutler, another director of the National Crime Commission, said there is a direct correlation between crime and handgun rates. And last year, Mathias added, the attorney general's Task Force on Violent Crime, appointed by President Reagan, recommended handgun control restrictions as part of its approach to curbing violence.
Mr. Knox offered the counter-arguments. ''This legislation is a sham,'' he charged. To decrease crime, he argued, Congress should increase police protection with more judges, and mandatory punishment for crimes with firearms. Federal legislation will hamper, not help, he charged.