THE United States is struggling over gun control again. The apparently random shooting on April 24 of four people in Atlanta ensures a fiery legislative debate. Perhaps doubly so, because of the facts of the case.
A man identified by police as Reginald Moreman of Anniston, Ala., pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and opened fire on a lunch crowd in a suburban mall, killing one man and injuring four others. Police say Mr. Moreman was carrying papers that said he had been released from a local mental institution the day before.
Federal legislation now before Congress might have prevented his getting the gun. The so-called Brady bill - named for former President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was seriously injured when he was shot by a would-be presidential assassin - would impose a seven-day waiting period on anyone who wanted to buy a handgun. That delay would give law-enforcement officials the opportunity to deny gun permits to felons and those judged insane.
Several states already have such waiting periods. Georgia does not.
At press time, DeKalb County (Ga.) police had not specified how Moreman obtained the gun. They say he turned himself in to police after the shooting. They have charged him with one count of murder and three counts of aggravated assault.
``The public is ahead of Congress on this,'' says Nancy Coffey, press secretary for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, sponsor of the Brady bill. ``Every time there's another terrible incident, it's an indictment of Congress's inability to act.''
The National Rifle Association, traditionally an opponent of gun-control legislation, did not comment. An official said authorized spokesmen were not available.
At least two states have had longstanding waiting periods for potential handgun buyers. The New Jersey State Police approved 631,702 handgun permits and denied another 11,670 between 1968 and 1988. That is a denial rate of 1.8 percent, says State Police Capt. Thomas Gallagher.
Before approving the permit, the state and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct a check of the would-be buyer. The process takes a few weeks and aims to screen out felons and those adjudicated insane. Former mental patients must get a letter of approval from a physician before they can obtain a gun permit.
California has a mandatory 15-day waiting period for handgun buyers. Last year it denied 1,793 requests of a total 333,069 - a 0.5 percent denial rate. The state refuses permits to anyone convicted of a felony or judged by a court to be a danger to others.
The Atlanta incident involved fewer people than a number of mass shootings in the past 28 months: at the University of Montreal; at a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif.; at a printing plant in Louisville, Ky.; and at a Silicon Valley defense contractor.
Polls suggest that these incidents don't have a lasting impact on the public, because attitudes about gun control have remained similar over the years. A Harris poll a year ago showed that 78 percent of those surveyed favored federal gun registration, with 20 percent opposed and 2 percent undecided. These are virtually the same numbers Harris reported in an October 1975 poll. Even a majority of handgun owners - 70 percent - support federal registration, the 1989 survey found.
``The public is fairly clear'' on the issue, says Jeff Muchnick, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence. ``But it hasn't been enough to enact federal legislation, which is what we really need to stop these incidents from happening.''