Another gun-control battle

THIS June marks the 16th anniversary of the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot a few weeks earlier. The killings prompted Congress to pass the mild Gun Control Act of 1968, putting minimum restrictions on the sale and possession of handguns.

There are often more handgun murders in New York City in a night than there are in Japan in the course of a year. Europeans cannot understand why we permit such lax gun laws when we register automobiles and license drivers.

Now Congress returns to Washington to resume the battle on handgun registration.

A new feature has appeared in the argument. The caption on an advertisement of a wholesome-looking, tousle-haired girl giving a big smile and holding aloft a .45 pistol reads, ''I'm the NRA.'' The initials stand for National Rifle Association - the lobby fighting gun control. The caption explains the virtue of pistols and declares that ''children who have learned proficient athletics with a pistol or rifle understand discipline. It makes them better people.''

The girl in this series of advertisements is designed to counter hostile emotion. She explains that ''the NRA is an open-minded, positive organization. They listen to what you have to say.''

Congress now has a couple of items to settle on this subject. One is the McClure-Volkmer Gun Decontrol bill in the Senate. It may bring the first vote since the shooting of President Reagan three years ago. Foes argue that the gun lobby, through political-action committees, has contributed $166,000 to senators on the pro-gun side on the Judiciary Committee in the last few years.

An example of how tangled the issue is: Mr. Reagan - the target of a would-be assassin's handgun attack - opposes gun control and told a sympathetic audience in Phoenix, Ariz., last May, ''It's a nasty truth, but those who seek to inflict harm are not fazed by gun control laws.'' He continued, ''There is one thing we do not want. We will never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear and harm.''

Opinions may be shifting on gun control. The city council of Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, voted 4 to 3 this month to ban the sale and private possession of handguns. It joined neighboring communities of Morton Grove and Evanston in the new handgun ban, which has no effect on rifles or shotguns. The vote in Oak Park follows victories in two control referendums in Florida in March.

A Gallup poll last June reported that a majority of Americans favor stricter handgun control.

Few are aware of the bitterness of this uniquely American dispute. For example, the Gun Owners of America Inc. publishes a paperback with a cartoon on the outside headed ''Stop the 'Gun Collectors.' '' A figure like Teddy Kennedy is collecting a barrowful of automatic handguns and telling a tearful boy, ''Gimme That Dangerous Weapon, Kid.''

The pamphlet warns, ''Starting in 1903 and getting progressively more strict, England has nearly outlawed guns. Registration is required for all guns, and licenses are hard to get. The gun lobby declares that when World War II began ''England had no guns in civilian hands to repulse a Nazi invasion. . . . So we - the US - sent them 200,000 guns! After the war they forgot and went back to their old ways.''

The British example is offered both to support and attack the custom in the United States.

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