BASEBALL, apple pie, and guns - they're all as American as the Fourth of July. But this country's long love affair with firearms, which dates back to frontier times, appears to be sputtering. Harsh events are daily jarring the nation's consciousness. In the capital, drug dealers, petty criminals, and innocent civilians are gunned down in the streets at the rate of 10 a week. In Los Angeles, drive-by hoodlums shoot bystanders and police. In Stockton, Calif., five children are killed and 30 other people are wounded in a schoolyard by a man who sprays more than 100 bullets from an AK-47 military rifle.
Many Americans are saying - enough.
Halting the gunfire, however, won't be easy. Critics say the problem lies in lax gun laws, and in the 170 million weapons now in the hands of civilians. Among them, there may be as many as 500,000 assault-style, semi-automatic rifles.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), which regards the label ``assault rifle'' as prejudicial (some hunting rifles are just as quick-firing), contends that the only workable, long-term answer is locking up the criminals.
Ted Lattanzio, director of state and local affairs at the NRA, notes that during the past year, Florida released 22,500 felons early because of a lack of jail space. Texas turned loose 33,000.
Mr. Lattanzio says, ``People want something done. Law enforcement is doing an incredible job, but their work is being turned right back on the street by the judicial system.''
The growing national debate over guns was heard this week in Richmond, Va., the so-called ``Murder Capital of the South.'' State legislators there were swamped with phone calls and letters demanding action.
Virginia, like Florida and Texas, has become a major weapons source for criminals because of its loose laws on gun purchases.
Gov. Gerald Baliles (D) noted that ``Virginia lawmakers have a long-held tradition of rejecting efforts to restrict an individual's right to bear arms.'' But Mr. Baliles, like the state legislature, heeded the public cry.
Virginia will now require a computerized check of the criminal background of anyone buying an assault weapon or, in most cases, handguns. Baliles says the new law will protect individual rights, while cleaning up Virginia's reputation as ``a gun trading center for the worst elements in our society.''
Although the National Rifle Association supported the Virginia bill, J. Warren Cassidy, the executive vice-president of the NRA, admits he is ``concerned'' about the public outcry. In a TV interview, Mr. Cassidy argued: ``It is the [criminal justice] system that is failing, and failed those children in California'' by turning criminals loose on society.
The NRA's Lattanzio notes that according to a federal study, it costs $20,000 a year to lock up a criminal, but a typical felon commits an average of 187 crimes a year at a cost of $430,000. ``The cost to society of releasing them is exorbitant,'' he contends.
But many members of the public have become impatient with the gun lobby. ``The mood has changed,'' says Virginia state Sen. Moody E. Stallings (D) of Virginia Beach. ``House members are up for election this year, and there's tension here. The phones are ringing off the hook, and letters are pouring in.''
Senator Stallings, who sponsored the successful Virginia bill, speaks about assault rifles from personal experience. In 1968, he served as a US marine in Vietnam, where he was hit five times by bullets from AK-47s during an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers near Da Nang.
Handgun Control Inc., the anti-gun lobby in Washington, notes that in Japan, Britain, and Canada, the death rates by guns are far lower than those in the United States.
In Canada, for example, only five people were killed by handguns in 1985, compared with 8,092 in the US. If the numbers were adjusted for population differences, the US would have to reduce its killings to less than 50 a year - or by more than 99 percent - to equal Canada's record. The same year in Britain, only eight people were killed, and in Japan, only 46.
Although many states and communities have strengthened their gun laws, the major question for the nation is whether Congress will act.
There are regularly about 125 members of Congress who sponsor tougher gun laws, but they will need nearly 100 more votes to push a bill through.
Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, who has introduced a gun bill this year, says that within a matter of days it should become clear whether a law can be passed in this session.
One key will be the actions of such leading Democrats as House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and assistant majority leader Tony Coelho of California, who come from districts where guns are popular. The leadership can bottle up anti-gun bills unless there is a huge public outcry.
In the Senate, anti-gun efforts are led by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio. Earlier this month, at a Senate hearing, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates supported quick action by the Congress. He told senators:
``My police department has already lost two officers who were killed by assault weapons.... I do not want any more officers to be spray-gunned to death by street punks armed with high-tech killing machines. I believe such weapons can be, and should be, legislated out of the hands of killers.''