AWAITING period before purchasers of handguns are allowed to walk away with their weapons would allow time to check for a criminal record or history of mental instability. This was all the Brady amendment to the Omnibus Drug Bill - an amendment the Congress defeated last week - would have done. But it was more than enough to set off the gun lobby. National Rifle Association activists had peppered lawmakers' home districts with inflammatory mailings about the modest law.

Some 60 million handguns are privately owned in the United States. The trade in semiautomatic weapons, favored by drug dealers, is growing. Police organizations strongly backed the amendment.

Since a fourth of guns used by criminals are bought legally, a dash of regulation there would have had an effect. Twenty-two states and many cities already have waiting periods. Spreading that protection nationwide would have been a sound use of federal power.

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